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Meals on Wheels faces increased demand

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't put the brakes on Meals on Wheels.

The organization, which brings food to seniors who need prepared meals or can’t leave their homes, has had to make adjustments in light of the coronavirus. Demand has increased, but Eugene Theroux, the director of nutrition services for Thames Valley Council for Community Action, said so far, the group has met the need.

Theroux credited Gina King, director of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, which recruits senior volunteers, with finding people to plug the holes in the food delivery routes.

“As of March 13, when everything kind of kicked off, we added about 200 clients to our Meals on Wheels program,” Theroux said. “Some of those clients have come from our congregate sites because all of those sites have been closed down due to social distancing. We've been able to identify individuals who would go to those sites and needed help with transportation. We're actually able to get them meals as well because they’re considered homebound. Those meals are being delivered with the help of town senior centers."

The New London County Meals on Wheels is run through the TVCCA, a nonprofit agency committed to helping economically and otherwise disadvantaged citizens. The service supplies more than 1,500 meals per day weekdays for upwards of 800 clients in New London and Windham counties.

TVCCA closed its congregate sites, which are places seniors can dine together in person, because of the coronavirus. They had provided daily hot lunches  at senior centers Monday through Friday. 

During the crisis, Theroux said Meals on Wheels has had to work even more closely than usual with the towns it serve.  As it does in advance of inclement weather, the program conducted an emergency meal delivery at the beginning of the quarantine.

“We worked with the municipalities, their first selectmen and mayors, and we were able to get all the meals delivered to the towns, then they delivered the meals to the clients in their towns,” Theroux said. “If there’s a time when the program has to shut down, they have meals to sustain them for a period of time.”

Is Theroux concerned about Meals on Wheels shutting down?

“Not at this time,” he said. “We've been very fortunate: None of my workers, food service aid chefs, drivers, have been affected. We do have our procedures in place, though, that if somebody does have a fever, or is ill, they need to stay home. We've had a couple people in that situation, but they did not have COVID-19. They self-quarantined to make sure it wouldn’t be spread.”

Mary Allen, a site supervisor for the program, organizes kitchens, trains new workers and helps coordinate the new drivers; she teaches them proper etiquette, what to expect from clients and how to properly navigate the area. She said, and Theroux agreed, that beyond the safety precautions of personal protective equipment, social distancing and disinfecting, the major difference in Meals on Wheels right now is the lack of interaction between driver and client.

“There’s usually a verbal connection with the volunteers because for a lot of the homebound, we may be the only face they see that day,” Allen said. “There are a lot of family members who are afraid of what the virus could do, ‘My 80-year-old grandma, my 90-year-old dad,’ the stories go on. I'm concerned. Some people might have just come home from the hospital, individuals who may have significant weight loss or other underlying problems.”

Lucas Neil Johnson, a paid driver for Meals on Wheels, also pointed to the relationships drivers create with clients as the largest loss.

“Before this pandemic, I would spend a lot of time in the client's homes, checking up on them, maybe moving stuff around for them,” Johnson said. “I’d go into the home, maybe eat with them, just spend some time with them. A lot of them are old folks who are medically homebound, they don't really have an opportunity to have a lot of human bonding. Unfortunately, I'm now very limited in how much I can do that.”

Now, Johnson said, he can only bring people food and speak with them from a safe distance. He said that since he isn’t spending extra time with the clients anymore, his New London route has gone from three hours to between two and two-and-a-half.

Johnson said he’s working more than normal because Meals on Wheels is trying to avoid putting volunteers in harm’s way. Reactions from clients have mostly been the same — kind, and in good spirits — despite the occasional case of cabin fever. He described how some clients get food every day or almost every day and others get a basket of goods weekly.

At times, Johnson said, he becomes worried about the folks who don’t have Meals on Wheels.

“From working in areas that have lower-income housing, I see people that I wish were on the Meals on Wheels list,” Johnson said. “We’re a nonprofit, so our clients do not have to pay us. We take donations if they're willing and able, but it's not like we're going to stop delivering the food if you don't give us any money. A lot of times, people pay for their parents and grandparents, which helps us maintain the business and continue helping people.”

The TVCCA website says funding for the program is partly provided by local, state and federal sources and adds that a donation is suggested, “though no one is denied a meal for not donating.”

Meals on Wheels is available to homebound people aged 60 years or older. Eligibility guidelines can be found at https://www.tvcca.org/food-nutrition/senior-nutrition-program/. People can gain access to program through a referral from a “visiting nurse, social worker, doctor's office, hospital, municipal agent, family, friends and clients themselves.” 

Allen praised the drivers who deliver the meals. 

“A lot of the individuals who volunteer are elderly, so for them to still be hanging in there when they're the most vulnerable population is wonderful to see,” Allen said. “To do this job, you have to be happy to serve, you have to be ready.”

Theroux said all volunteers are distinct, but they have a similar trait.

“I think it's very personal for volunteers,” Theroux said. “I believe, especially in the time that we're in, where individuals just can't go to work, they have a lot of time on their hands and they want to volunteer — they don't have the time to in their normal day-to-day life. I feel that people are taking advantage of that opportunity to be able to help others.”

Johnson said that even though he isn’t a volunteer, the part-time job he’s doing is gratifying. He’s a musician who is happy to practice his passion while also earning a bit of money working for a worthy cause.

“I can engage in my musical endeavors and add to this company that does a lot of great work for a community that’s seen better days,” Johnson said. “The people I supply with goods and services are good folks. They appreciate our service, and that's not lost on me. It's a very fulfilling line of work.”

Theroux said that Meals on Wheels is about the food. 

"Food is medicine. I feel we're actually helping the hospitals out by keeping people home and keeping them from situations where they’d need to go out and get food. We could be freeing up a bed for somebody that needs to be treated for COVID-19.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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