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August 28, 2007 > Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels

By Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson

Imagine having a delicious hot meal delivered to your door every weekday, rain or shine, by a delivery person who asks if he or she can take out your garbage. Now imagine that this is your only meal and you depend on these deliveries to survive; the daily visit 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 L.I.F.E. Eldercare.

L.I.F.E. operates three programs; Meals on Wheels, Friendly Visitor and recently launched Travel Escort. L.I.F.E. Eldercare has come long way since its beginnings as humanitarian project headed by one woman, Virginia Carlson, wanting to make a difference. Created in 1975, Carlson 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 homebound elderly in the Tri-City Area. Nearly 30 years later, L.I.F.E. Eldercare delivers, on average, over 350 meals daily. Every day, new recipients are added and the list continues 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 Americans receive over 300 million meals a year delivered by over 100,000 Meals on Wheels volunteers.

A growing population of older Americans means more individuals will be in need of meals provided L.I.F.E. Approximately 89% of the individuals receiving these meals live below the average income level; a number of them are estranged from family members and have few resources except LIFE Eldercare.

A 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. Anderson comments: "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]."

At the end of the month, recipients receive a bill but if for some reason, the person cannot contribute the total, the remainder will be funded from "somewhere." This "somewhere" consists mostly of federal and state funding, supplemented by donations from local businesses and individuals.

"We depend upon the seniors to contribute," adds Anderson who 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 one other agency use volunteer drivers. This cost saving measure increases funds available for meals. Volunteers are what make LIFE Eldercare's Meals on Wheels Program so special. The value of the simple, yet personal act of delivering a meal is beyond measure. One gentleman, when asked about his experience with Meals on Wheels, instantly began to cry, so immense was his gratitude.

Each delivery involves more than a transaction of food. Personal contact is powerful; "Good Morning," "Hello" or a word of concern and someone to check in every day. Daily delivery consists 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 recipient. "I depend on these meals."

Seven different meals - regular, diabetic, low sodium, low fat, and low cholesterol, renal, soft and puree, mechanical soft and vegetarian - are available. Occasionally, particularly on holidays, local school children make cards to be handed out with the meals. Food is prepared at a kitchen in Livermore, placed in coolers - one for the hot meals, the other for frozen meals and beverages - and driven directly to the parking lot behind the LIFE Eldercare offices in Fremont.

Before the truck arrives, volunteers begin to gather at the parking lot, greeting each other as they wait. Barbara Proctor, Volunteer Coordinator of LIFE Eldercare, hands them a list of deliveries for the day and drivers check specific requests (vegetarian instead of the chicken offered that day). With the arrival of the delivery truck at 10:15 a.m. and disbursement, volunteer drivers count the meals to make sure they received the correct batch. Then, as quickly as they arrived, wheels are in motion as they drive off to deliver multiple levels of nourishment.

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. Each day, chosen drivers receive an extra meal. At the end of their route, they are to record its temperature, ensuring quality control.

Volunteer Coordinator, Barabara Proctor says, "I am very biased, but I have a wonderful, wonderful group of volunteers." She has reason to be proud. Volunteers reflect all segments of society and range in age from 16 to 99, each dedicated to brightening the lives of recipients.

Martha, a driver for Meals on Wheels since 2001, 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 to the door. She greets 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 greeting.

The reason Martha became a driver for Meals on Wheels is commonly 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.

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.F.E noted that between fifty and seventy seniors would like to participate in the program.

Travel Escort was launched in July. This program will link volunteers with frail, homebound seniors or individuals with disabilities who are hesitant to ride Paratransit 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 Paratransit but feel vulnerable traveling alone.

L.I.F.E. Eldercare relies and thrives on, the hard work and dedication of its staff and especially its volunteers. 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 or making a tax-deductible contribution, contact Mary Anderson at 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.

LIFE Eldercare
3300 Capitol Ave., Fremont
(510) 574-2090
www.lifeeldercare.org

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