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SALT LAKE CITY — Just like a hot meal and a kind word, companionship can keep the elderly living longer and more independently. But many people may be unaware of a program right here in Salt Lake County that is feeding the need to keep senior citizens in their homes.
Ninety-two-year-old Joanna Kaihi has been pretty lonely since her husband passed away in 2001. However, just listen to how she describes two family members she's been taking care of: "They keep me company and they keep me busy. And they keep me motivated."
These days, Kaihi has her hands full raising two rambunctious pit bull girls named Cassie and Bella. "That's what you need when you're in the aging process," says Kaihi.
But Kaihi admits that as a single parent, she got a little lazy when it came to preparing meals for her little family. "You just don't want to cook or make anything so you kind of snack around," says Kaihi.
Dwight Rasmussen is the program manager for Independent Living in the Salt Lake County Aging Services Department. One of the programs Rasmussen oversees is Meals on Wheels and he says "nutrition is important for everyone, particularly in older adults."
That is why the folks at Meals on Wheels stepped in to make sure everyone in Joanna's brood is eating healthy on a regular basis.
Every weekday a hot meal packed with lots of protein and vegetables is delivered to Joanna. And for Cassie and Bella, a big bag of nutritious dog food is delivered each Wednesday.
Rasmussen says, "We all know that pet owners really take care of their pets first."
So, healthy food for man and beast is the focus at the Salt Lake County kitchens. Cooks start preparing almost 1,200 "meals on wheels" at 4 a.m., dishing up hot noodles and veggies before sunrise.
And not far away in a separate area, volunteers are scooping and bagging dry cat and dog food.
The Pets Plus service has become an important cog in the well-oiled Meals on Wheels program. "This is very helpful to help them keep their pet/s with them," says Rasmussen.
Kaihi is anxious to keep Cassie and Bella happy and healthy. She says, "I would miss them if they weren't here. My house would be sort of empty."
There is no chance Kaihi will be an empty nester anytime soon. Her girls are well fed. "That's (the dog food) gone within a couple of days it seems...they love it," says Kaihi.
As Kaihi watches Cassie and Bella play she attributes some of their high energy to the Pets Plus program and all the nutritious food they're getting on a weekly basis.
Rasmussen says, "They (the elderly) rely on their pets and the dogs and cats rely on the older adults. It's a wonderful relationship."
Kaihi is well aware of that loving relationship. She says, "With them (Bella and Cassie) here, (this is) why it's my home and this is their home."
The Pets Plus program is supported by several pet food drives throughout the year. If your company or organization is interested in sponsoring a drive or making deliveries for the Meals on Wheels program, contact Salt Lake County Aging Services at 385-468-3200.