Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

The crowds are returning to the senior centers, including the dances held once a month at the Belen Senior Center.

Continually serving our communities with hope that we can make a difference in one person’s life is the mission of the Valencia County Older Americans Program.

“We have it to help our seniors in Valencia County,” said OAP operations manager Lydia Maldonado about the program.

The best way the program helps seniors is through food, providing congregate meals at five meal sites throughout the county and home-delivered meals up to seven days a week, both available for seniors 60 and older.

“There is a lot of senior hunger,” Maldonado said. “And socialization is another big part of it.”

Even if seniors can’t make it to a center on a regular basis, many seniors rely on the meal delivery drivers for human contact and connection, she said.

“We have seniors who will call us. In fact, I was off (recently) and one of my seniors called just to see how I was doing. It’s all about that human connection.”

Maldonado has been the operations manager since January 2020, just before the “beautiful pandemic,” as she put it, but she’s been with the county for nine years, having started as the meal site assistant at the Del Rio Senior Center in the city of Rio Communities.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo

Billiards is one of the many activities seniors can participate in at the Fred Luna Multi-generational Center in Los Lunas.

The county provides OAP services at three locations — the Belen Senior Center, the Del Rio Senior Center and the Meadow Lake Senior Center — and provides meals at the Fred Luna Multi-generational Center in Los Lunas and the Bosque Farms Community Center.

All five locations have fully reopened as of July 1 for congregate meal services. Lunch is served from 12-12:30, Monday through Friday, except for Bosque Farms, which serves lunch from 12-1 p.m. every week day.

The program also provides home-delivered meals to qualifying seniors Monday through Friday, and in some cases on weekends as well.

The central qualifying question for home delivered meals is, “Are you physically unable to cook a meal for yourself?” Maldonado said.

“There is a questionnaire and an assessment, where we ask their nutritional needs, do they have to eat a certain way due to medical condition, how many servings of fruits and vegetables they get in a day,” she said. “You kind of have to dig because people will say they are eating meals but what they’re really doing is snacking.”

The assessment also asks whether a person is unable to leave their home due to physical or mental limitations, including health conditions that can put them at high risk if exposed to COVID. Income is not a factor in determining eligibility for home meal service, she said.

“You could live in the biggest house, have the best kitchen, but if you can’t cook a meal for yourself, that doesn’t matter,” she said. “For some of our seniors, this is the only warm meal they will get in a day. Nine times out of 10, they’re going to get approved because if they’re asking, they really need it.”

To find out if you qualify for home delivered meals, call the OAP office at 505-864-2663.

The program serves anywhere from 580 to 600 meals a day, about 50 percent of which are delivered to homes.

Maldonado encourages seniors to visit the centers not only for casual socialization but planned activities as well.

Dances are returning to the Belen and Del Rio centers, she said, which has created excitement among the seniors.

“They’re so excited. We might not do every Tuesday like we were (before COVID) but once a month would be nice,” she said.

From 10 a.m. to noon, seniors can try to play bingo at the three centers run by the county on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays at the Belen Senior Center, the fun switches to cornhole.

“That’s a lot of fun, too,” Maldonado said. “We are working with the Valencia County Senior Olympics for that.”

Across the river at Del Rio in Rio Communities, seniors can attend a Tai Chi class from 10 a.m to 12 p.m. on Wednesdays.

“I would like to get more activities, like crafting, but we have to have the funding and staff for that,” she said. “We also have billiards and computer labs set up at the Belen, Del Rio and Meadow Lake centers.”

Later this fall, Maldonado said the program will offer classes for seniors focused on estate planning and powers of attorney.

“Those will be good classes for our seniors. We also have a lot of people who come in and help the seniors with open enrollment for their insurance.”

The OAP also offers medical transportation for seniors to Albuquerque Monday through Thursday, and locally Monday through Friday. Seniors can call the OAP office at 505-864-2663 for more information and to schedule a transport.

“We will also transport to go pick up prescriptions, eye glasses — anything medical related.”

Maldonado said staff at all the centers are more than willing to help seniors connect to resources.

“I think, sometimes, they don’t have anybody else. They don’t have anybody checking in on them, and we’re a familiar face, someone they can trust.

“All our senior centers are good places. If somebody’s having a problem, if they need information or a resource, we’re a good place to call. If we can’t help you, we will find the answer for

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.