If ever there was a time to highlight the Meals on Wheels program, it would be now. It was only a couple of months ago that some of our community politicians had signed up to participate in ‘March For Meals’…a campaign in the month of March to highlight the importance of this vital service for the most vulnerable in our communities. These politicians were participating in a day of accompanying a meals driver to deliver meals to some of our consumers. We are thankful to the support we receive from the leaders of our cities and towns.
For obvious reasons, this campaign was unable to be followed through. Never would this have been predicted. Now our ‘Meals on Wheels’ program is facing great demands and challenges. Our state officials urge residents to stay home and for our elders, this is vital in keeping them safe.
What this means is an increase in the number of people requesting and needing a home delivered meal. For those who rely solely on the home delivered meal, it may mean requesting a second meal – frozen or shelf-stable to get them through a day or week.
I had the fortune of being available to offer help to our hard-working Nutrition crew by calling Meals on Wheels consumers to check that they had enough food in their homes.
The reality is that many did not. The reality is that many are alone and fearful. The reality is they depend on this program in order to have food.
However, stronger than the fears they shared, was the resilience and hope they showed; the belief that they would manage despite the obstacles. And then there was the gratitude they expressed for the program and their drivers.
It was heartwarming to hear the appreciation for the drivers still doing the hard work. “I can’t see Dave (the driver) but I’m pretty sure he has wings. He is an angel.”
The meal has always been about more than the food delivered. For many, this may be the only contact they have in the day with another human being. Our drivers are the eyes and ears of our agency to let us know when someone seems ill or confused or does not answer their door to receive their meal. No agency could do this work without the crew of drivers bringing meals to our consumers.
Back at the office, remote for some at this point, our agency has dedicated staff following up on calls, keeping drivers updated, meeting the requests for new meal consumers (there is a 20% increased demand), calming frightened elders, and sometimes simply lending an ear. They are working tirelessly and are fully committed to serving those in need. They and our drivers are an amazing group of people.
Protocols have changed. Drivers wear gloves and masks and instead of bringing the meal into the home, must now leave the meal at the door; waiting for verbal confirmation is the new wellness check. Social distancing makes this necessary.
Since many of our drivers are age 60 and over, we have lost drivers to their own need to quarantine themselves. With the depletion of drivers, the agency has needed to recruit and train more.
“This has been a bit of a double whammy for us,” said Jennifer Raymond, who heads up strategy for Elder Services of Merrimack Valley and North Shore. “The dramatic increase in meals mean we need more volunteers and are adding routes. At the same time, many of our drivers are vulnerable themselves so we are losing a few drivers as a result.”
We can assure our consumers that every measure is in place for safe handling of food preparation and delivery, from our caterers and our drivers. One lovely woman asked if she could confide something to me. She was considering canceling her meal delivery because she felt so frightened that the food or the packaging was contaminated. She did not want to risk that.
We know the fear is real for people, particularly those who live alone and do not have a person to express their fears to.
However, the packaged food is safe and is the lifeline to staying healthy. We can recommend quieting those fears by bringing the meals into the home and washing down the packaging with soap and water, putting the food directly on a plate without touching the food, and heating in the microwave if desired, and then of course washing hands before and after doing these steps. However, the latest data shows no spread of the virus through food, so other than the frequent and thorough hand washing, these steps are for your own comfort level.
There is a worthwhile video on grocery safety for your home. Dr. Angela Rasmussen is an infectious disease expert at Columbia University. She shares her shopping habits and food handling. She talks about the dangers of the virus spreading through people interaction and not through food.
What can any of us do during this crisis? How can we keep our elders safe?
If you have an elder in your life (be it family, friend, neighbor), try reaching out with a phone call to see if they need anything. If you can pick up some food they could use and if you do not have physical contact and are healthy yourself, this could be a life saver. This is one way we can serve our elders and serve our country. We have a moral responsibility to take care of each other.
Can you identify someone who needs help?
There were several elders who I spoke with who said things like, “I don’t want to take away from someone who needs it more than I do.” Or, “My daughter/son is pretty busy, and I don’t want to bother them.”
Despite what some of our elders may tell us about being fine and not wanting to be a bother, there is something we can all do to make sure they know we are looking out for them; that we understand their fears.
Can you find ways to help?
If ever the importance of this Meals on Wheels program across this great country announces itself, this sure is the time. This program relies on the generosity of people donating money and time. Once we are through to the other side of this most difficult crisis, our hope at Elder Services of Merrimack Valley and North Shore is that you may find it in your hearts to give to this worthwhile cause. We thank you for your consideration.
Or maybe you can assist someday by becoming a driver.
To qualify for Meals on Wheels, people must be at least 60 years old and home-bound, meaning they have trouble leaving their home without assistance. The intake 1-800 number for Elder Services meals program is 800-892-0890, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
You can also reach Elder Services offices at the Lawrence office – 978-683-7747 or at the Danvers office – 978-750-4540.
Jayne Girodat is the Communications Specialist at Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley and North Shore, Inc. Along with ten years in the position of Caregiver Support Specialist at another ASAP, Jayne was a long-distance caregiver to parents for the same amount of time. That experience serves as motivation to better understand the issues of aging and to engage people in conversations about those issues. Jayne’s background in teaching contributes to her appreciation of social media as a tool to educate readers on aging concerns. “I love asking people questions. Everyone likes to be heard. When you ask and then listen, you’ll find everyone has a story and some of those stories are gems. I think it is particularly important to hear the voices of our older adults. Those are the stories I really connect to and hope to bring to North Shore Elder Services’ audience.”