So, my 1983 Plymouth Colt and I met up with her and the other volunteers at a nearby senior center to pick up the food. The hot meals were ready to go, hand packed in aluminum containers with a lid to keep them warm. They also loaded us up with milk, juice, and rolls.
Our volunteer leader had a list of addresses we would be driving to (they would turn out to be very small apartments) and we stuck together because she knew the route. This was in the days when people wrote directions down with a pen and a piece of paper, GPS devices like Garmins were considered a luxury.
Whether it was due to youthful optimism or my extroverted personality, I don’t remember feeling nervous about visiting complete strangers in their homes. I remember telling myself that it would be sort of like Trick-or-Treating, but in reverse. I would ring the doorbell, someone about four times my age would answer the door, they’d be the one receiving food and I’d be on my way.
But my assumptions about a speedy drop off were quickly dashed. I would learn that for many of these folks, I was their only human contact for the day, and boy did they want to savor every moment of it! Almost without exception I was greeted with a joy I wasn’t accustomed. It was a sort of a ‘
Christmas morning’ expression of thanks and gratitude, followed by stories, questions, and laughter.
“Come in! Come in! Thank you so much for coming today! I’ve been hoping for someone to stop by.”
“Hoping?” I thought to myself. I tried to hide my puzzlement while I asked where they would like their meals placed. Many of the seniors had physical limitations, so as we chatted about their day (and they asked about mine) I wanted to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently putting something out of reach. Some folks would buy two meals, one for now and one to save for dinner.
After visiting the fourth or fifth apartment I finally realized why everyone was so eager to see me at their doorstep. Just as Halloween isn’t all about the candy, Meals on Wheels is about more than the food.
It’s about people.
Meals on Wheels
After graduating from college I started tutoring in after-school programs while I looked for a full-time job. This was during the No Child Left Behind era (a story for another day) and I worked mainly in River Rouge, a small industrial town downriver of Detroit.
Scheduling with my company was erratic, and sometimes they had trouble funding our paychecks on time. So, when I saw a job posting for an Adult Day Care in Wayne County I decided to tweak my resume (again) and apply.
At the time I had very little clue what an Adult Day Care was, but I knew I enjoyed visiting the seniors with the meals program. I had also randomly volunteered to help paint an Adult Day Care in Hamtramck, MI while it was renovating. So, I threw that and the Meals on Wheels program on my resume and landed not just an interview, but the job as well.
It turns out, the Adult Day Care participated in the Meals on Wheels program too. It was actually one of the main features we used to market ourselves in the community. That a senior could get a nutritious hot meal, 5 days a week, for $2.25 at our program.
Once again, I found myself getting in my 1983 Plymouth Colt to drive to the nearby senior center to pick up Meals on Wheels for seniors. This time it would be for those who couldn’t be safely left home alone during the day, due to cognitive or physical limitations, and came to our day care program.
Usually, the senior center would have the meals ready and waiting to be picked up by me at the front door. But on occasion I got there a little early, or the
volunteers and staff in the kitchen were running late, so I would walk inside to pick up the meals.
Within the senior center, I couldn’t believe the amount of commotion and talking as people gathered around tables for lunch. The kitchen that prepped the meals for deliveries also served lunch to seniors who could gather there. The energy in that room at lunchtime was so vibrant it was almost overwhelming. I felt like I was back in my college dorm cafeteria.
It became clear to me, again, that Meals on Wheels wasn’t just about the food. It’s about people.
It’s about a group of widows meeting up for lunch at the senior center to talk and laugh with one another.
It’s about a group of Alzheimer’s patients in a day care getting to enjoy the taste of food together, one of the few things they haven’t yet forgotten.
It’s about a 19 year-old volunteer knocking on your door to ask about your day.
So when I heard that funding for Meals on Wheels was getting axed in the president’s budget proposal because the program is
“ineffective,” this is what you’re telling me:
That the time I spent going door-to-door, chatting and delivering food to vulnerable seniors, was ineffective.
That the care I provided in helping Alzheimer’s patients eat nutritious meals safely, was ineffective.
That the innumerable volunteers from sea to shining sea who serve our country’s Greatest Generation with the support and dignity of a hot meal and human interaction, are ineffective.
It takes a village to support our elders, one of our country’s most vulnerable populations.
I realize that the proposed cuts to the federal block grant program can seem like small potatoes when compared to the cuts that some other agencies are facing. The Department of Education is eyeing a $9.2 billion slash. For DHS, it’s $12.6 billion.
But the reality is that Meals on Wheels, like many other social service programs, is already strapped for resources. I can attest, as I eventually became the manager who deals with CDBG grants and had to pay the bills, that many programs for seniors are already operating on a shoe-string budget from a patchwork of funding sources.
Under these conditions, any cut to funding is alarming.
Meals on Wheels reports that it is
delivering 23 million less meals annuallywhen compared to a little over a decade ago. This has taken place while our population has been growing older, not younger, and the demand for services will only continue to rise.
If anything, we should be talking about providing greater support for Meals on Wheels, not less. The Baby Boomers have only started to trickle in to retirement, will we be able to meet their needs as they age?
“It takes a village to raise a child,” is a proverb that we hear repeated often. But I’ve found it to be true for elder care as well.
It takes a village to support our elders, one of our country’s most vulnerable populations. To put this in terms that the White House might understand, it takes an army.
But whether it’s the Meals on Wheels program, or the
ACA healthcare reform, the message we keep hearing from the administration is “You’re on your own.”
Which misses the point of what a meals program is. It’s not just about the numbers, it’s more than just the the food.
It’s about the people.
Written by Justin Zarb