More Than a Meal...

Guest Writer: Glen Pearson 

originally printed in The London Free Press March 24

As London sees its population age, a new reality is emerging that challenges our sense of collective well-being: seniors' hunger and isolation.

As London, like most communities in Canada, sees it population age, a new reality is emerging that challenges our sense of collective wellbeing: seniors’ hunger and isolation.  As we get older life shifts in unexpected ways – the caregiver needs some caring, the citizen needs her community, families require some assistance. 

It’s a subject we don’t discuss much, but the idea of older citizens lost in loneliness or pining for a meal is one of the quiet tragedies that places a lengthening shadow on community life every day.  A spotlight needs to be placed on it and perhaps that’s the greatest service London’s Meals on Wheels program provides us.  What started out as a humanitarian impulse in churches has now become a much larger London necessity.

Presently, the organization delivers over 120,000 meals annually to 1859 Londoners over 55 years of age and those challenged by disability or need of prepared meals.  Ultimately, it’s not about just delivering food, but of providing various levels of connection to keep clients engaged and committed to a productive life. 

A life in isolation can be one of the great deterrents in the aging process.  For twenty-six percent of clients, their meals on wheels volunteer is the only visit they are receiving in the average week.  For 86% the meal delivered is their primary meal of the day and their only source of fruits and vegetables.  That’s troubling and signals that more needs to be done to ensure isolated citizens remain engaged.  It’s your traditional hunger story, but one in which people are hungry for companionship.

Some 10,000 deliveries each year result in no answer at the door.  The person might be there but unable to answer because of a fall, poor hearing, an illness or lack of taking proper medication.  Meals on Wheels London has established training protocols to deal with such situations.  A call is made to the head office, who then calls the home in an attempt to contact the person.  If unsuccessful, the pre-arranged emergency contact is phoned and if that doesn’t work the police are summoned.  It’s an integrated response to equip the 450+ plus volunteers with the tools and confidence needed to keep isolation from turning tragic.

London business leader, David Bilson, in one of his volunteer driving shifts for the organization, recounts one such encounter. 

“One person didn’t answer the buzzer and I grew concerned. It was good to have learned the Meals on Wheels protocol in that case to make sure the person was safe. I was impressed.  If I lived in a different city than my elderly relative I would be glad to know that there is someone checking up on them.” 

This is the new Meals on Wheels equipped for tomorrow’s challenges.  Much was made of a story in the media regarding a woman received numerous parking tickets for delivering someone to a medical appointment – a situation that has since be clarified, with an apology from the driver.  Yet as part of their service, Meals on Wheels, through its Wellness Program, provides escorted transportation to medical appointments for those with disabilities in London.  They do it every day.

Few know about it, but it’s a service that effectively become the “eyes and ears” for the medical system.  Such services, coupled with the healthy nutrition provided to clients, effectively keeps Londoners out of medical facilities and remaining within their own homes.  It is hard to overstate what this has come to mean to those of an age where assistance of this kind has become essential, permitting them to maintain independence for a longer time.  Researchers from Brown University have shown that meal deliveries help seniors stay out of nursing homes, prevent falls, and save the health system money that would have to spent on hospitalization.  A solid economic and business case exists for such an organization.

Seventy percent of funding for Meals on Wheels London comes from fundraising efforts and client fees, increased usage means they have to increase those activities.  This is what it takes to be a true community.  This is what it comes down to – citizens reaching out to citizens.  It is an effective method to overcome isolation and grateful way to take care of those who built our facilities, coached our sports teams, taught our children, served with military honour, enhanced our service clubs, administered our healthcare services, and established a valued nation.  Our best way of saying thanks is not just to overcome their food worries but keep them engaged in the world they have built.  Citizenship demands no less.