HONOR -- The first fat snowflakes of the season filling in her footsteps, Becky Somsel alights from her van carrying a small plastic tray and mounts the slushy porch steps to Estella Blohm's mobile home.
Blohm opens her front door and greets Somsel like an old friend before leading the way to her kitchen with careful steps. Since surgery that resulted in complications more than a year and a half ago, Blohm's health has steadily declined and visits by Somsel -- route coordinator for Benzie County Council on Aging's home-delivered meal service -- have become commonplace.
"It's just been one thing after the other," said Blohm, 86, as she peeled back the tray's covering to reveal a brat burger, roasted plank potatoes, mixed vegetables and peaches.
The nutritious lunch is one of five hot and two frozen meals Blohm will receive this week direct from the kitchen at The Gathering Place senior center. Home-delivered meals also can include breakfast bags and milk for seniors who have difficulty getting out on a regular basis.
"It helps a lot," said Blohm, adding that she's not only spared shopping for groceries but cooking and cleaning up afterwards. "It gives me a variety I wouldn't have otherwise. Without it I would just eat a sandwich and keep it at that. And I wouldn't have the nutrition I need."
Home-delivered meals are among the Benzie COA's most important services, said Director Debbie Sever. Yet for reasons that aren't entirely clear, fewer seniors have been receiving the meals in recent years.
"We should have 100 clients," Sever said, noting the growing senior population in the county. "Now we have half of that. I don't recall it ever being this low. It's baffling."
While obvious reasons for the decrease include death or relocation to relatives' homes or long-term care housing facilities, Sever said confusion over eligibility for the services also may be partly to blame. Some seniors may believe they have to be economically disadvantaged or permanently or totally disabled to be eligible.
There's always the stigma that they think they have to be a low-income individual to qualify for meals or it's based on income. But it is totally not based on income, she said.
"The criteria is if you have a condition where you can't get out on a regular basis," Sever said. "Even people who ride the (Benzie) Bus would qualify because they don't get out every day."
Other seniors may think they are undeserving of the services, Sever said.
"Sometimes the hardest thing for people to do is ask for help. That's what we try to instill in people: 'You worked hard all your life to enjoy (retirement) and that's what we're here for -- to help keep people in their homes safely,'" she said.
Funded largely by county residents through a property tax millage, the Benzie COA is perhaps best known for its senior center in the shopping plaza on Honor's Main Street. Besides buffet-style Saturday breakfasts and weekday lunches, the center is home to regular activities ranging from the reflective (Bible study) to the raucous (Bunco and "Benzie Bucks" auctions).
"There's laughter and fun. It's a cool place," said Senior Center Coordinator Cindy Dutton, who is organizing several special events for December including a Christmas light show trip Tuesday, a community Christmas dinner with all the trimmings and a New Year's Eve Party featuring appetizers and dancing. "We just need more seniors. A lot of them, they think it's a handout or free. It's not. That generation is hard to get over this; they don't want handouts. But it's not. This is their building. They voted for it."
Not every agency service is hurting for clients, Sever said. In fact, some are bursting at the seams.
"Basic services, like homemaker, lawn care and snowplowing, we are usually maxed," she said, adding that the agency provided 322 hours of snowplowing in 2008 and has 60 seniors signed up for this year. Other popular services include free income tax preparation through AARP at the COA office; transportation, which provides free passes to ride the Benzie Bus; and dining out, which offers half-price certificates to 14 participating area restaurants.
But Sever said the agency is planning to do more to make traditional seniors aware of its services and to reach out to the next generation of clients: baby boomers.
"You don't have to be the magic 60 to walk through our doors," Dutton said.