August 17, 2004 > Meals on Wheels
Meals on Wheels
by Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson
Imagine having a delicious hot meal delivered to your door everyday, rain or shine, by a delivery person who asks if they can take out your garbage. Now imagine that this is your only meal and you depend on these deliveries to survive and the daily visit is your only contact with the outside world. For hundreds of senior citizens throughout Fremont, Newark and Union City, this is reality and they are able to live with dignity and a strong connection to a caring support group, thanks to the caring people at L.I.F.E. Eldercare.
L.I.F.E. operates three programs; Meals on Wheels, The Friendly Visitor Program and the recently launched Travel Escort Program. L.I.F.E. Eldercare has come long way since its beginnings as humanitarian project headed by one woman wanting to make a difference in the Tri-City Area.
In 1975, Virginia Carlson of Fremont recognized the need for nutritional meals to the area's elderly and founded L.I.F.E. Eldercare. During its first year, the program delivered about 300 meals to the homebound elderly in the Tri-City Area. Nearly 30 years later, L.I.F.E. Eldercare delivers, on average, over 350 meals each day to individuals around Fremont, Newark and Union City. Each day, new recipients are added and the list will only continue to grow.
"We need to pay more attention to this rapidly growing population," notes L.I.F.E. Eldercare Executive Director, Mary M. Andersen. "Society still tends to shy away from it. The aging process is something we all share."
Meals on Wheels is a federal program that operates throughout the United States. 2.6 million frail, elderly Americans that receive over 300 million meals a year delivered by over 100,000 Meals on Wheels volunteers.
The growing population of elderly means more individuals will be in need of the meals provided L.I.F.E., whose goal is to provide meals to frail, homebound elderly. 89% of the individuals receiving meals live below the average income level. A number of them are estranged from family members and have no one to turn to but the caring people of LIFE Eldercare.
The most common misconception about Meals on Wheels is that it is a free program available to anyone. Individuals who wish to be involved in the program must first meet need requirements. "So many people think that Meals on Wheels is an entitlement program. It is not. It is a donation program so we do ask for a contribution based upon income level - a sliding scale anywhere from $2.50 to $4.50 [per meal]," says Mary M. Anderson.
At the end of the month, recipients receive a bill based on the sliding scale. If for some reason, the person cannot make their total payment, the rest of the money will be made up somewhere. This "somewhere" consists mostly of federal and state funding and is supplemented by donations from local businesses and individuals.
"We depend upon the seniors to contribute," adds Anderson yet is quick to note that, "With the way the economy is right now, we don't want to add one more frightening thing that they have to concern themselves with."
Of the seven Meals on Wheels programs that operate throughout Alameda County, only LIFE and another agency use volunteer drivers. A portion of the money LIFE is able to use comes from the money they would otherwise have to pay the volunteer drivers. That is what is so special about the volunteers of LIFE Eldercares Meals on Wheels Program. The simple, yet personal act of giving another person a meal can mean more than words can express.
One gentleman, when asked about his experience with Meals on Wheels, instantly begins to cry, so immense was his gratitude.
Each delivery involves more than a transaction of food. The simple, yet personal acts of one human being relating to another is powerful; "Good Morning," "Hello" or a word of concern and someone to check in everyday.
The recipients of the meals are extremely grateful for their daily delivery of an entrŽe (chosen at the beginning of the month from a menu), choice of juice or milk, and dessert. "I don't know what I would do without them," says one elderly gentleman. "I depend on these meals."
The recipients are able to choose from seven different types of meals--Regular, diabetic, low sodium, low fat, and low cholesterol, renal, soft and puree, mechanical soft and vegetarian. Occasionally, particularly on holidays, local school children make cards to be handed out with the meals. Meals are prepared at a kitchen in Livermore, placed in coolers-one for the hot meals, the other for frozen meals and beverages-(hot meals are kept warm by a heat brick at the bottom) and driven directly to the parking lot behind the LIFE eldercare offices
Before the truck arrives, volunteers filter in to the parking lot, greeting each other and saying "good morning." Barbara Proctor, Volunteer Coordinator of LIFE Eldercare, who hands them their list of deliveries for the day, greets them. Drivers are to check for specific requests (vegetarian instead of the chicken offered that day) and then count the meals to make sure they received the correct batch. The truck arrives promptly each day at 10:15, met by the volunteers who unload the truck, count their meals and drive off for another morning of delivering a hot plate and a warm smile.
Adds Proctor, "Imagine, years from now, your spouse is gone, you are using a walker, your kids are busy, and you can't get out. Do you have any reason to get out of bed and get dressed during the day? So when a Meal on Wheels volunteer comes, not only do we bring them a nutritious meal, but we may be the only face they see all day, the only reason they get dressed. We hear this over and over again. 99.9% of the seniors are so grateful that we have shown up. "
Monday through Friday, approximately 21 drivers head out on a route with anywhere from 15-22 deliveries. On Thursdays, the frozen meal for Saturday is delivered alongside the hot meal and Friday's hot meal is accompanied by Sundays frozen meal. Rain or shine, meals are delivered. If for any reason a driver cannot make their deliveries, another driver, even Proctor herself, will make sure that each person who depends on Meals on Wheels for (sometimes their only) meal, receives their food.
Each day, chosen drivers receive an extra meal. At the end of their route, they are to take and record the temperature, ensuring quality control that is part of the success of the program. Empty containers are dropped off at shed and picked up the next morning and driven to Livermore where they will be exchanged for full ones.
"I am very biased but I have a wonderful, wonderful group of volunteers."
Proctor has reason to be proud. The make-up of the volunteers directly reflects those who benefit from L.I.F.E. Eldercare-poor, middle class and wealthy. They range in age from sixteen to eighty-nine, each dedicated to brightening the lives of the recipients.
Part of this terrific team of volunteers is Martha, a driver for Meals on Wheels since 2001. She has been driving the Monday route in Fremont since November of last year. She had to switch days when she returned to work and now spends part of her "weekend" delivering meals to seniors and disabled adults. Each stop on her route takes about five to eight minutes as she hops out of her car, checks the menu to make sure each meal is correct, neatly places the meal, drink, and dessert in a plastic grocery bag and walks it to the door. She greets the recipients by name and offers a cheerful "Good Morning". Some stops may take a few minutes longer as she inquires about the recipient's heath and offers a sweet smile and a warm "hello" and "goodbye."
Martha became a driver for Meals on Wheels for a common reason expressed by other volunteers: she wanted to give something back to the community. A double-organ recipient, she feels she has been given a second lease on life and would like to return the favor. "My mother used to do this and she's now 91 years old. Now my brother and his wife take care of her. This is my way of taking care of someone else because she lives in Virginia." She adds, "Not only is it delivering a hot meal but somebody sees them once a day to know that they're okay.
Aside from Meals on Wheels, L.I.F.E. Eldercare operates two other essential programs. The Friendly Visitor Program brings companionship to the elderly by matching volunteers with homebound seniors. Volunteers accompany seniors on their trips to the market or doctor offering a hand to help them Mary M. Anderson, Executive Director of LIFE, says that a survey of seniors involved in L.I.FE noted that between fifty and seventy seniors would like to participate in the program. "It might be that after the senior does it on their own they'd be fine doing it by themselves," notes Anderson.
Beginning July 1st of this year, L.I.F.E. Eldercare launched its Travel Escort Program. The program will link volunteers with frail, homebound seniors or individuals with disabilities who are hesitant about riding Para transit by themselves. Surveys conducted by L.I.F.E. and the city of Fremont found that there are a number of seniors who would use Para transit but they feel vulnerable about traveling alone.
Each facet of L.I.F.E. Eldercare is an important program that relies and thrives on, the hard work and dedication of its staff and volunteers. Without these individuals, hundreds of people would go hungry each day. By giving a small portion of their day to someone else's needs, they can claim personal responsibility for making the world better - one meal at a time, feeding the hungry, helping the fragile and connecting with their community.
If you are interested in volunteering one hour or more, contact L.I.F.E. Eldercare at (510) 574-2090. You may also make a secure, tax-deductible online donation at www.lifeeldercare.org. or mail your donation to LIFE ElderCare Attn: Mary M. Anderson 3300 Capitol Ave Fremont, CA 94538