I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak on this matter and the Minister of State for attending to reply.
The meals on wheels service, which is provided by SUPPORT in the Finglas area, has played a pivotal role in community care throughout the country. In this context, it is vital to maintain and expand services to ensure that every older person can benefit. The Government is committed to extending the service and there was a significant increase provided in the last budget to allow for €12.5 million to be spent nationally in 2006 and an additional €2.5 million next year.
In this context, it is not acceptable that the SUPPORT meals on wheels service, which operates in four sheltered housing complexes in Finglas — Mellowes Court, St. Helena's Court, Glasanon Court and Clareville Court — must cease operation in June due to lack of funding. Therefore, I appeal to the Minister of State to do everything in his power to ensure it does not happen.
SUPPORT is a voluntary organisation that has operated in Finglas since 1994 and is currently providing 70 meals per day to the aforementioned sheltered housing schemes. On average, this equates to 2,000 meals provided for more than 100 people per month. From a cost viewpoint, this service is excellent value for money. SUPPORT sponsors a community employment scheme for 27 participants, all of whom are engaged in the preparation, cooking and serving of meals. For this it receives annual funding of around €350,000 from FÁS and has been provided with accommodation and use of kitchen equipment free of charge from Dublin City Council since 1999. From the former Northern Area Health Board it receives a subvention of €1.40 per meal, equating to annual funding of €17,000.
Since 2004, SUPPORT has been using this money to fund wages for two drivers who deliver meals and collect food supplies. They work ten hours a week and are a vital element of this service. It will probably be asked why there are no volunteer drivers. Unfortunately, the cost of petrol has risen and it is not easy to get volunteers for this type of work anymore.
Since the beginning of this year, it has become apparent that SUPPORT can no longer use the subvention money to pay drivers — it just will not stretch to meet these costs. The staff raised this issue with the relevant authorities and have highlighted the urgency of the matter. They have been doing all they can to bring in extra funding. They applied for a lottery grant, which was refused, and they are awaiting a decision on dormant account funding. They raised the issue with the HSE in March and have received no further communication on the matter.
In these circumstances, a decision has been made to cease the meals on wheels service on 30 June. The Minister of State does not need me to outline the benefits of the scheme but it is important that they are listed in order to highlight the impact of this closure.
The provision of a daily meal is considered a vital part of an elderly patient's discharge plan from hospital. Referrals come from public health nurses, local GPs and social workers. This service is, therefore, vital to the discharge of all elderly patients in Finglas. It allows for older people to be cared for at home and in their own community, ensuring they maintain home comforts and independence, as well as reducing costs for health boards. Apart from the provision of a meal, the social contact involved is important. The service is a means of keeping in contact with older people, many of whom live alone and suffer from loneliness. Of the 70 meals that SUPPORT provides, 90% of them are to people on their own.
For SUPPORT to continue to provide these meals to help these older people who are on their own and dependent on the service, we must immediately clarify where the funding will come from to pay these drivers. I raised this issue with Dublin City Council and the HSE last year but to no avail.
It will cost approximately €10,000 to pay for drivers from now until December. From these projected costs, we can expect it will cost only €20,000 per annum for this vital delivery and collection service within the context of increasing funding for this service nationally by a total of €5 million, a 50% increase since 2004. I appeal to the Minister to find these funds and to ensure they remain in place for SUPPORT. This guarantee will allow the service to continue and will enable many older people to remain living at home and receiving care in their community amongst their friends and family. We should do everything possible to enable them to do this.
All the funds received from FÁS are solely used for participant wages, protective clothing, kitchen staff and training. Half of the participants' training must be spent on training required by the HSE in food handling.
SUPPORT recently had to stop taking referrals from hospital social workers and public health nurses. It has expressed serious concern about the future of its patients and their continuing residence at home without a daily meal. Some households receive more than one meal. In one household, SUPPORT provides meals to a 90 year old woman who has two mentally disabled sons in their late 50s who are totally dependent on the service. Another lady must give the driver a key so she can let herself in to bring the meal to her in bed because she is too weak to leave it because of breathing difficulties. A number of clients are elderly diabetic patients who have amputated limbs. Patients in the early stages of senile dementia and Alzheimer's disease, who often cannot remember what day it is, are also clients. Another elderly man living alone is terminally ill from cancer.
The delivery person is an important contact for these people. Many times they have alerted the emergency services, having found the patient unconscious on the floor following a fall the previous night. Often patients cannot afford to pay for their meals on time as they have no access to their pensions. This puts a further strain on finances because SUPPORT will not see an older person go without a meal. These people do not regard the service as a luxury but as a necessity. This is especially the case in winter when they are most vulnerable.
I ask the Minister of State, therefore, to intervene on behalf of this service to ensure the necessary funding is provided before the unnecessary closure of the service on 30 June.