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Editorial: County program takes aim at loneliness

Loneliness has been called an epidemic in our society.

A modest program scheduled to start in January in Erie County intended to encourage low-income seniors to dine out could help them feel less alone.

The program, funded by a $250,000 federal grant for two years, will subsidize the cost of meals at half a dozen restaurants, including eateries in the West Side Bazaar, Gigi’s (coming soon to the Northland Workforce Training Center in Buffalo), Peg’s Place in Hamburg and Cozy Corner in Springville.

In 2016, then-U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sounded a warning that Americans were “facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.”

Researchers at UCLA found that loneliness is linked to higher levels of inflammation, which is associated with a range of health problems. Lonely people, particularly seniors, are more susceptible to high blood pressure, heart disease and dementia.

The program, announced last week, is for seniors who get free or subsidized meals from the county. The program’s organizers are hoping to attract younger seniors, particularly baby boomers, with the program.

There are a variety of ways for low-income people to get nutrition help, including government-funded programs such as SNAP, and private charitable initiatives, including Meals on Wheels, food pantries and so forth. Erie County itself offers a meal delivery program.

For seniors who take their meals alone, many could use other forms of nourishment besides what’s on their plate. The restaurant program will encourage more seniors whose meals are subsidized to visit new places to eat, bringing some variety to their social lives.

A story in The News about the program said a sort of pilot was launched in 2016 at Preservation Pub on Main Street, where LGBT seniors started gathering for lunch.

County residents aged 60 and over will be eligible for the program, set to launch in January.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz noted that sometimes “this is the only hot meal that a senior will have on any day.”

The social effects of getting more disadvantaged seniors out into restaurants, rather than being restricted to senior centers, or dining alone with their pets or TV sets, should be an added benefit, one that could help boost the physical and mental health of all participants.

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