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FINDLAY - As she enjoyed the last few bites of her walleye dinner and waited for dessert to arrive, Shirley Ennis looked around the table at the South Side Family Restaurant.
"It's nice to come and eat out. It just makes the day sometimes when we're together," she said.
Like they do every Thursday, Ms. Ennis and a dozen or so friends who used to gather at Christ Church for lunch were dining at South Side - one of four Findlay eateries where senior citizens can use restaurant certificates issued through the Agency on Aging.
The unusual program began in January in Hancock, Putnam, and Allen counties to take the place of congregate meal sites that were under-used and eventually closed. Rhonda Davisson, community services director for the seven-county Agency on Aging based in Lima, said the new program has been such a suc-cess it was expanded to Hardin County June 1.
"It's spreading like wildfire and people are loving it and eating more fruits and vegetables and getting out of the house and meeting with friends," Ms. Davisson said.
"We probably receive a good 20 applications a day," she added. "We've gone from serving congregate meals for a total of 728 people last year to serving 1,200 to 1,300 people doing senior dining in addition to about 400 congregate people."
The program is very simple. Residents in those counties age 60 or older may apply for the dining certificates through their county's office on aging. Under a formula that considers the applicant's financial, social, and nutritional needs, each is then issued certificates for the month that can be used at participating restaurants. The seniors are asked to send in a $2 donation each time they go out for a meal, but it is not required.
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John Urbanski, executive director of the Hancock County Agency on Aging, admits he was initially skeptical about the program because the primary purpose of congregate meals is socialization. He said some of the seniors who buy lunch at the Senior Caf his agency runs also use the certificates and seem to like having options.
"The voucher program is working, and it's a complement to what we're doing," he said. "I don't care where they're eating as long as we're serving their needs."
Ms. Davisson said she thinks the dining program has worked well in the largely rural counties where it was hard to attract people to meal sites.
"If their family is home in the evening or on weekends, it allows them to go out at other times than just for lunch," she said. "Also some people pair up, or if they come into the bigger towns like Lima and Findlay for doctor appointments, they can utilize any of the restaurants that are participating."
Charlie Bright of Findlay said he and his wife, Sally, enjoyed the weekday lunches at Christ Church, where they helped serve the meals, but he knows it was a small group that showed up each day to eat.
"This really is a good program," Mr. Bright said of the restaurant certificates. "I think the people do get around more. They mix."
Besides South Side, he and his wife also use the certificates at the Main Street Deli in downtown Findlay, though they're careful to arrive by 11:30 a.m. to avoid the noontime rush.
Owner Elaine Bruggeman said she was happy to work with the dietician from the Agency on Aging to come up with a variety of lunch choices for seniors. Many are new - and welcome - customers.
"These are all brand new faces," she said, adding that she's impressed by their eating habits. "They're all so health conscious because they've had health issues. They usually have a green salad, a cup of soup, and a sandwich - turkey, no cheese, no mayonnaise."
Jodi Warnecke, executive director of the Putnam County Council on Aging, said her agency used to provide transportation for seniors to a meal site at a local senior apartment complex. Now, since that meal site was closed, the agency transports them to restaurants that accept the certificates, like Henri's in Ottawa and Dick's Steakhouse in Kalida.
"We try to promote it," she said. "Some people don't want to go out to eat by themselves so we encourage them to go with family or friends. It has connected people back again with each other. We've heard comments from them after they go to restaurants and see people they haven't seen in years. In general people are enjoying it."
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