Rural living comes with limited services for Monongalia County seniors
By Julia Maltby
On a Tuesday afternoon in April, at the Senior Monongalians Senior Center in Morgantown, West Virginia, there are a few people in the cafe, sipping coffee and reading, and two men playing pool. One of them laments how the art classes must have damaged the pool table after he narrowly missed the corner pocket. The center, which reopened to the public in June of 2021, is the one place he can play for hours, undisturbed, without the alcohol-fueled bustle of a bar or pool hall.
Almost 11 miles outside of Morgantown, in the unincorporated town of Core, the Community Center is opening for a congregate meal for seniors for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. A group of seven seniors from the Core area meets for their first meal together since 2020. The food is supplied by the Senior Monongalians meal delivery service, which provides meals every Tuesday.
This area in western Monongalia County is quiet, rural, and pretty isolated––which is a blessing and a curse for the people who live there. The closest grocery stores, schools, and hospitals are more than a 20-minute drive away. However, most residents prefer it this way. For Mary Ann Harmon, an elderly woman who lives in the area, the peace and quiet, as well as her roots, keep her living where she is.
“I own my property. I’ve lived here for over 40 years. My family lives here. And you know, it’s just where we’ve always been, and I wouldn’t want to live in town because I like the quiet of the country.” -Mary Ann Harmon, resident of Crown
“I own my property. I’ve lived here for over 40 years. My family lives here. And you know, it’s just where we’ve always been, and I wouldn’t want to live in town because I like the quiet of the country.” Harmon said.
However, the relative quiet comes at a price, especially for elderly people who live in this area. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.2% of Monongalia County residents are 65 or older. Based on the census population estimate of approximately 106,387 total residents, that means about 14,000 elderly people reside in Monongalia county.
For those ages 65 and up who don’t live in Morgantown, the lack of easily accessible resources can cause many issues. The distance to town, which was once a necessary evil to enjoy a quiet lifestyle, can become an insurmountable hurdle for elderly people who can no longer travel as easily. Harmon described how troublesome it can be to live in a place like Crown, the unincorporated town where she lives about 9 miles from Morgantown.
“The problem is we’re so far out in the country. And we’re in Mon County, but we’re right on the border of Mon County. You can’t get any kind of food deliveries or groceries or anything,” she said. “See in town they have that service to help you, but not out here.”
The divide between the town and the country is prevalent in the minds of many of the residents of this area, and it can cause a disconnect that negatively impacts their quality of life. There is a general assumption that since some resources don’t exist, no resources exist. This is not entirely true.
Senior Monongalians is a 501(c)3 nonprofit senior services center for Monongalia County residents 60 and older. The organization offers nutritional programs like meal deliveries, in-home healthcare assistance, social services, and space for socialization–plus, almost all of the services are free. Senior Mons receives money from federal, state, and local commissions, as well as donations, to provide for the local seniors.
But even though Senior Monongalians is pledged to serve all of Monongalia County, the organization is still limited with the distance it can reach. Currently, the meal services employees serve around 125 meals per day, split between their four delivery trucks. The farthest deliveries are in Maidsville, only about 20 miles from the Senior Center in Morgantown.
“We try not to limit our delivery area, although some people live in Mon County and they’re closer to the Marion County resource,” said Rod Maddox, the Senior Monongalians Home Delivered Meals Coordinator. “And we don’t go all the way out west to the Wetzel county line, we don’t go that far.”
Meals on Wheels, which has far greater name recognition, only serves a small area outside the Morgantown area. According to the Morgantown Area Meals on Wheels website, they only deliver within a 10-mile radius of their three delivery centers: Goshen Baptist Church, Rock Forge Presbyterian Church, and the Star City Kitchen.
Maddox said Senior Monongalians is the better option in many cases anyway.
“Meals on Wheels is very selective in who they will take on, and usually Meals on Wheels charges. We do not charge, and we do accept donations, but we never ask for them. We don’t push the issue, because there are a lot of people out there who just cannot afford the $2 a day or whatever it might be for a meal,” Maddox said.
For anyone living in the rural areas outside of Morgantown, getting involved with the Senior Monongalians meal delivery program is relatively easy. The only three eligibility requirements are that the recipient is at least 60 years old, either homebound or living alone, and physically or mentally unable to obtain food and/or prepare meals. Once a person reaches out to Senior Monongalians, a home visit will be done where general and nutritional information is collected, and then Maddox will coordinate what delivery route works best for them.
Rod Maddox talks about organizing weekly meals for the Seniors at the Core Community Center.
Lisa Martin, the executive director of Senior Monongalians, said that most of their clients come from the Veterans Association, hospitals, rehab facilities, senior housing, and other senior centers. She said it can be very difficult to reach people who live in the far reaches of the county.
“They’re not going to be in town. Most of them don’t even have the internet to find out about things, and if you’re on a fixed income, the paper is a luxury. So we depend a lot on word of mouth, you know?” – Mary Ann Harmon
“We usually don’t advertise, but we do have a portion in the Sunday paper. We also have Facebook and are entertaining other forms of social media,” she said. “Many senior citizens in the rural area or homebound seniors may not have access to all forms of advertising.”
Harmon also said that connecting with the elderly people in rural areas is a challenge.
“They’re not going to be in town. Most of them don’t even have the internet to find out about things, and if you’re on a fixed income, the paper is a luxury. So we depend a lot on word of mouth, you know?” Harmon said.
She said many elderly people in the area have to depend on family to provide for them. For those who don’t have family in the area, they have another outlet to depend on.
“The local churches are like the mediator between getting something done if you need help,” Harmon said. “Everybody in this community knows that if they need anything to do with fixing anything just to call the church and to get a hold of Isaac.”
“Isaac” is Isaac Harmon, the lead pastor of Hagans Christian Church in Core, and Mary Ann’s son. For sixteen years he has been the leader of the congregation, and his focus on community engagement and support is impossible to ignore. Their website names several ministry groups that people of all ages can get involved with, including S.A.U.C.E., which stands for Seniors Are Useful Christians with Experience.
Another group is the Helping Hands Mission Ministry, which focuses on helping the elderly and disabled people in the community. They change batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, install wheelchair ramps and railings, repair roofs, and other various home repairs.
“We provide services for the seniors of the community, elderly widows, people that just simply cannot do for themselves, any way that we can improve someone’s manner of living,” Isaac Harmon said.
This ministry group has helped countless members of the church, and all without costing them a dime. All of the work that is done by Helping Hands is funded through donations of money, labor, or materials from church members. Mary Ann Harmon attested to just how helpful it is to not only provide these services, but to do so at no cost.
“As far as fixing the house or fixing things, if you don’t have the money there, you can’t get it done. They also supply the stuff, the alarms and the batteries, and all those things, because most of the elderly they have are on a fixed income and can’t afford it.” Mary Ann said.
The existence of a service like the Helping Hands Ministry in a remote community is important, because it allows the older members of the community to remain in their homes for as long as possible. Downsizing or moving to a care facility can be financially and emotionally challenging, and most seniors living in these rural areas, like Mary Ann, simply don’t want to do it.
She said the culture of country living is as important as the quiet. “The people know everybody, and it’s like a family. Anybody that knows of anyone in need, we go to the church, and they take care of it. And that’s really nice, for the elderly to know there’s someone that they can reach out to.”-
The focus of my research has been on the unincorporated communities of Monongalia County, specifically the Crown, Core, and Arnettsville area. I grew up in the dense suburbs of New Jersey, so researching these rural towns was extremely eye-opening for me. One thing that I found surprising in my initial research was that western Monongalia County only has one combined middle and high school, Clay-Battelle, that serves the entire county west of Morgantown. Students in the communities I was looking into would have to drive about thirty minutes to get to school. I was also surprised at how little coverage these communities get in the news. I was aware coming into the project that we would be covering underserved communities, but the sheer lack of articles in local papers like the Dominion Post was shocking.