A brief glimpse of the lives of people who receive Meals on Wheels in Niagara-on-the-Lake came as a surprise to Lord Mayor Betty Disero during some recent home visits, but also provided some insight into the needs of residents and what more can be done to help them.
The non-profit volunteer service is celebrating its 50th anniversary of caring for residents in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls who are in need of well-balanced, nutritious meals. To recognize the milestone, to dispel some myths of the service and to explain its slogan, “more than just a meal,” Disero was invited to help deliver meals last Thursday to seven homes — six individuals living alone, and one couple. It was an eye-opener,
The service is not based on economic need, as she soon discovered. It’s also not only seniors who qualify — it can be anybody who is physically or mentally challenged. There is a cost to the meal, although it is kept reasonable with funds from the Province, administered through the Local Health Integration Network. But this branch is always underfunded, she was told, and depends on donations to make up the difference.
After picking up meals at the Niagara Falls hospital, Disero spent three hours driving through rural and urban areas with local volunteers Bobbie Corcoran and Kim McDowell. Both are seasoned drivers with Meals on Wheels, and at each stop they prepared the lord mayor for what to expect as she was introduced to a microcosm of need in NOTL.
In some cases, it’s a matter of putting a meal on a tray or table inside the home, with the client remaining unseen, by choice. Others enjoy a conversation — some more than the meal itself — and checking on the condition of the recipient is as much a part of the service as the nutritious meal, which this particular day included chicken, pasta, vegetables, soup and dessert, kept hot in an insulated bag for the duration of the deliveries.
Often, it’s a family member or neighbour who puts Meals on Wheels in touch with clients, arranged as much for the added reassurance of someone checking in with their loved one as for the need for the meal itself.
“We see a large range of situations and economics,” said Corcoran, explaining some can be of concern because of poor living conditions, but help is offered when necessary, although not always accepted.
The volunteers, both from NOTL themselves, described one situation where the agency called in police when a meal dropped off hadn’t been touched when they returned with the next one, only to discover the client had died alone.
Another client was living with a relative in what seemed like an unsafe situation — volunteers felt the son might not actually be giving the meals to his aging mother, whose physical and mental health were deteriorating, and reported their fears to the agency. The client was taken to hospital, where she now awaits a room in a long-term care residence.
“This is one of the things about Meals on Wheels we want people to understand,” said McDowell. “We do more than deliver meals.”
At the first delivery, where a client couldn’t be seen and didn’t respond to a shout-out — the usual arrangement is to leave the meal on a tray beside the door in this rural apartment, with its overwhelming odour of cat urine — McDowell said she would make a phone call to the office to have someone follow up to make sure the client was safe. In that case, she said, “It was a neighbour who reached out to us to say he felt this gentleman needed our help. The neighbour might be able to check up on him.”
Deliveries continued, to an immaculate bungalow where a woman, living on her own after the death of her husband, invited the volunteers into her cheery kitchen and wanted to chat.
She was happy to see the lord mayor and recalled clearly the conversation she and a friend had with her during the election campaign last fall. Animated and laughing as she spoke, she said she was glad Disero had won and was doing a great job.
“I can’t believe she remembers that conversation,” said Disero of the 96-year-old.
Her daughter lives close by and visits every day, but takes two days off a week from cooking for her mother by having meals delivered.
The volunteers said this particular client, well-looked after by her family, is one who always invites them into her living room, and loves to sit and chat amongst the many family mementos — she’s one who relishes conversation more than the meal, although she sat down to eat the entree, the soup and dessert going into the fridge for later.
The next drop-off was quite a contrast, to a client in an apartment where her hoarding habit made it appear unsafe even for volunteers — items were piled by the door, which was opened just enough by the elderly woman inside for Disero to stand in the corridor and hand over the meal she was carrying. The lord mayor was assured wheels were in motion to get some help for the woman, and at the end of the day, Disero said she would be making a phone call as well to ensure safety for all concerned.
Another delivery was made to a tidy and well-furnished home in Virgil, where the client was out with a friend, and then two more indicating the wide range of need to which Corcoran referred.
One was to a beautifully-appointed apartment where a senior, seemingly in excellent physical condition, praised the quality of the meals — she especially liked a recent meat pie, she said, and added she would be canceling the service for a while because she was off to stay with her daughter and family, who live in the U.S.
Although she seemed capable from that brief conversation of preparing her own food and said she loves receiving Meals on Wheels because she doesn’t much like to cook, McDowell explained clients may qualify for the program because they are too confused to cook, due to a concern they aren’t eating healthy meals.
The last stop was in a new and upscale subdivision of the Old Town, where an elderly and frail gentleman came to the door. Polite and appreciative, he accepted two meals, one for himself, the other for his wife.
Without knowing the details of his situation, McDowell said it’s likely his wife is no longer able to cook, and as her caregiver, he can’t prepare nutritious meals for the two of them.
“It’s not about affordability,” she said. “There are many different reasons for wanting meals.”
“You could live in the most expensive house in NOTL, and not be able to make a meal,” added Corcoran. “The need for assistance knows no economic borders. Money can’t buy health.”
Corcoran typically delivers hot lunches every Thursday, alternating weeks with her husband and a friend along. Although it’s not always the same route and the same clients, she does get to know most of them.
Clients are encouraged to eat their meal when it’s received — flavour, food safety and nutritional value are compromised if it’s reheated, especially the entree. If it’s too much for one sitting, soup and dessert can be kept for dinner, she said.
The meals are plated cold by Niagara Health staff at the St. Catharines hospital site. Menus are prepared on the advice of dieticians and special diets are taken into consideration. Although it’s a set menu, clients’ preferences are taken into account and alternatives offered when possible.
The food to be delivered to clients in Niagara Falls and NOTL is sent to the Niagara Falls hospital, where it is heated in the kitchen. The area becomes a beehive of activity as meals are quickly and efficiently packed into bags and loaded by volunteers ready to begin their route.
McDowell delivers frozen meals every Tuesday, which is a separate service. Clients can order as many as they want, and have choices — in some cases, one delivery can be 14 meals, for two people each day of the week.
Some clients order a combination of hot meals for certain days of the week, and supplement them with frozen. Others have hot meals delivered five days a week and have the frozen ones to heat up on weekends.
Hot meals are $7.20 each and frozen range in price from $5.40 for the entree only to $8.50 for soup and dessert included.
The Niagara Falls/NOTL location runs on bare bones staff: Marianne McRae is the executive director, and operates the program with two part-timers. The eight-person board and all drivers are volunteers. Gas money is offered, but most donate it back to the program, said McDowell, although more seniors are coming on board and as gas prices rise are accepting it to offset the cost of volunteering.
In 2018, said McDowell, 3,986 meals were delivered to NOTL clients, an increase of 30 per cent over the year before.
Some clients require meals only for a short time — in some cases during convalescence after they’ve been released from hospital and are recovering from surgery or an illness.
In other situations, it helps to keep clients living in their home, preventing or delaying the need for hospitalization or a long-term care residence.
Veterans receive Meals on Wheels free.
The local branch is always in need of volunteers and donations, said McDowell.
To volunteer, donate or for more information call 905-356-7548 or visit http://www.mealsonwheelsniagara.ca.
Cheques can be mailed to Meals on Wheels, c/o Box 1018, Niagara Falls, ON L2E 6X2.