Meals on Wheels warms hearts and stomachs

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

“Meals on Wheels!”

The announcement by Betty Emery, 79, and Shirley Miles, 76, is cheery. Door after door, from individual homes in neighborhoods to apartments in senior living communities, the two Williston residents can be seen every Monday delivering hot meals and a brown bag filled with drinks and dessert, announcing their presence with the same three words. The visits are brief, but the interactions, like the meals, are warm.

“We’ll see you next week, dear,” Emery says, leaving one client recently. “Bye bye, dear.”

For the last five years, Emery and Miles have delivered a hot lunch to the home of each Williston Meals on Wheels client every Monday. Throughout the state, Meals on Wheels ensures people age 60 and over get proper nutrition by having at least one good meal a day. Bag suppers also are available.

Last year over 178,000 Meals on Wheels were delivered in Chittenden, Addison, Franklin and Grand Isle counties, according to the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging. About 1,000 people are served in the four-county area, though the number is in constant flux. Some are clients for a few weeks as they recover from a hospitalization; some are clients for years.

“ What we basically say is that Meals on Wheels is for those that are unable to prepare meals for themselves,” Zoe Hardy, CVAA nutrition director, said. She emphasized that people of any income level are eligible. “If you’re on multiple meds, and don’t feel hungry (and don’t cook), it’s a slippery slope and pretty soon you’re in the hospital because of malnutrition.”

According to the CVAA Web site, 50 percent of seniors admitted to the hospital suffer from malnutrition severe enough to have caused their illness or impede their recovery. The Agency also indicates that 85 percent of older Americans have chronic illnesses that could be helped by better nutrition.

Diane Troupe, 68, learned how nutritious the meals are after she became a client following surgery for a pacemaker. Three months later, she went to see her doctor.

“She said ‘your cholesterol and your blood pressure has gone down, what have you been doing different?’” Troupe explained. “I kind of smiled and said ‘well I’ve been eating better. I’ve been doing Meals on Wheels.’”

The hot lunches include protein, vegetables, milk, juice, bread and fruit. Two Mondays ago, the Williston menu was ham, a pineapple ring, scalloped potatoes and broccoli and onions on the microwavable hot plate, and peaches for dessert. During the summer in Williston, a cold plate is served once a week – usually a green salad with meats and cheeses.

“To me the meals are always happy meals,” Troupe said, noting the meals are good tasting. “They’re colorful. Plus the people are like family.”

The personal connection is a big piece of Meals on Wheels, according to Williston route coordinator Patty Pasley.

“The service really isn’t just meal delivery; it’s also being able to check on the clients every day,” said Pasley, who started volunteer as a driver six years ago and has been coordinating the Williston route drivers for three years. Pasley said she sets up emergency procedures with her drivers such as what to do if someone is found passed out on the floor.

“The volunteers are taking on quite a responsibility there I think,” Pasley said.

Twenty volunteers regularly deliver meals to one of two Williston routes, Pasley said. Meals are prepared at St. James Episcopal Church in Essex Junction where volunteers – most of whom deliver twice a month – pick them up. Emery and Miles deliver weekly and to everyone in Williston – but they’re the exception. Emery and Miles are the norm, however, in that they are retired; Pasley said about 80 percent of the Williston route drivers are.

Pasley said since she’s been involved with the program, there has been a significant percentage increase in clients. Six years ago, Pasley said there were about 10 or 12 clients; now there are 30.

One of those new clients is Martha Moore, 85, who signed up for Meals on Wheels after two months in a nursing home due to a broken hip.

The volunteers who deliver are “just great, every one of them,” Moore said. “They come in and say ‘how are you? Are you alright today?’ And they visit, just as much as they can” before moving on to the next delivery.

Gus Agosta, 77, a Whitney Hill Homestead resident also spoke highly of the people contact Meals on Wheels provides.

“They’re excellent delivery people,” said Agosta, whose favorite meals include “porcupine balls” – a meat and rice ball – and shepherd’s pie. “They’re always checking to see if I need something else while they’re here.” Taking mail to the box and taking garbage out are among the extra things some volunteers do for him.

Agosta, who suffered from a brain tumor, said without the meal service, he would have to have take-out – which likely would not be as nutritious – or he would have to try to cook himself.

“I have to use a walker; I’m not able to stand by the stove good,” Agosta said. “I have to watch that I don’t grab something that’s hot.”

Agosta said he thinks more people who need meals should try the program.

“They would find out they’re real, real good,” Agosta said.

Troupe concurred. “It’s like you’re being spoiled, that’s how I feel,” she said