LET’S TALK ABOUT MEALS ON WHEELS
Think about your weekly trip to the grocery store. How do you get there? Perhaps you drive. Let’s say you are fortunate enough to have a driver’s license, access to a car, and the necessary funds to purchase your groceries. How long does it take you to shop? Perhaps half an hour, maybe an hour. It doesn’t particularly matter, since you have the energy. In fact, maybe you run a few more errands after the grocery store, since you’re already out. When you come home, you’re ready to put the groceries away and cook a healthy meal.
Sound familiar? This is a pretty typical scenario for many of us. Now, let’s think about our seniors. Many don’t have access to a car. Many are no longer able to drive and rely on busy relatives or neighbors to shop for their food. Many live on a fixed income and have trouble purchasing all the groceries they need. Even a simple shopping trip can be exhausting, and they may not have the energy to cook once they return home. Cooking could even be dangerous; many seniors are at risk of falling, or have other conditions that make cooking difficult or impossible.
This is where Meals on Wheels comes in. Two to five times weekly, seniors who participate in the program receive their nutritious meals. They no longer have to worry about rides to the grocery store. They don’t need to wonder whether they have the budget for groceries this week. And they no longer need to cook, worry about injuring themselves while cooking, or worry they won’t have the strength to cook.
We spoke with Barbara O’Neill who has worked with EAC Network for 19 years, the last five as the Program Coordinator for Meals on Wheels. First, it’s important to understand that these meals aren’t just any meals – they are specifically designed to give our seniors the balanced nutrition they need. “The meals are overseen by a dietitian. They’re all nutritionally balanced. Many seniors, before they get involved with the Meals on Wheels program, aren’t eating anymore. It’s too hard for them to prepare anything, so they just aren’t eating. Or they’re only eating things like soup, which isn’t going to give them sufficient nutrition,” said Barbara.
Meals on Wheels works hard to get meals out to seniors, especially when a storm is expected, Barbara explained. “If we’re expecting bad weather, we make sure to get deliveries out the day before. It’s especially important to make sure our seniors have food during a storm. For example, we made extra deliveries before and after Hurricane Sandy. We didn’t have power at the office, so I sat in a nearby eatery with my cell phone arranging deliveries. And, if we have additional funds, we get emergency boxes out to our seniors in case of an unanticipated disaster. We put in things like shelf stable food and flashlights to make sure they’re prepared in an emergency.” It’s not only emergency supplies, though; if Meals on Wheels has the extra funds to do it, the program provides birthday cakes, cards on Valentine’s Day made by local kids, and a festive gift for the holidays. “It lifts their spirits. It’s small, but it means a lot to them.”
The meal deliverers for Meals on Wheels are “a set of eyes,” and there are times when that is a life saver. “Our volunteer and part-time meal deliverers are very familiar with our clients. I’m told our clients look forward to seeing our deliverers, and they’re often waiting by the door or the window, looking out for the deliverer. If the deliverer knocks and doesn’t receive an answer, they don’t leave. They get in touch with me or other program staff, and we work to make sure the client is alright before the they leave. There was one incident where a deliverer spotted a client on the floor through the window. I was able to contact 911, and the responders got into the house to take care of her. She had been on the floor for a couple of hours. Who knows when someone else might have found her?”
Another incident was shared by Mary Coyle, Program Director for Meals on Wheels. “One of my staff recently called me from the field. She made a home visit to a 94 year-old woman in Port Washington. When she arrived there was a terrible odor of gas in the home. Our client told her she had someone work on her burner that past Sunday and that she was fine and did not want 911 called, which is why I was the one contacted about the concern. I then called National Grid who went to her home immediately and identified a carbon monoxide leak that could have shortly killed her. If it wasn’t for Meals on Wheels and the constant checking in we provide especially to those without family or visitors, who could have saved her?”
Meals on Wheels is a critical service for seniors, and it’s not a need that will go away. These services become even more vital as the Baby Boomer population continues to age – there are already so many seniors who need this lifeline, and we will have even more five or ten years from now. It’s not only about providing nutrition to people who are severely in need, though that is the key point. It’s about the people. “I didn’t go into this job only because I wanted to give people food,” Barbara said. “I went into this because I care about the people.”
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Sarah Muller is the Development & Marketing Assistant for EAC Network. She graduated from the University of Vermont with a B.A. in English.