Just as they do every Monday morning, the two older women meet up at a Decatur church, ready to roll.
Billie Jo Corell and Charlotte Patton have shared a Meals on Wheels route for a few years now.
They come from different backgrounds. Billie Jo hails from the northeastern part of the country, and Charlotte Patton was raised in Alabama. They became friends through their church, and besides their volunteer work they also hike together.
Charlotte’s SUV gets loaded up with boxes and bags filled with food, and the two women embark on their Monday Meals on Wheels route through the back streets of DeKalb County.
Volunteers like them, many of whom are seniors themselves, help power the Meals on Wheels program locally and nationally.
Home meal deliveries for seniors are in high demand, with waiting lists in every state, according to Meals on Wheels America.
Federal funding hasn’t kept pace with the need. Cuts in federal funding, especially through sequestration, “have had a dramatic impact,’’ says Erika Kelly, chief advocacy and government affairs officer with Meals on Wheels America.
“We are serving 21 million fewer meals than in 2005,” Kelly says. “At the same time, the number of seniors [needing meals] is increasing.”
In Georgia, state funding for Meals on Wheels has remained fairly flat, says Patti Lyons of Savannah-based Senior Citizens, a nonprofit that delivers 1,800 lunches a day in four counties. Chatham County has a waiting list of about 400 seniors, she adds.
In a report on senior health released this week, Georgia was ranked 47th among states in home-delivered meals for older people.
Getting to know the people
Billie Jo was a commodity broker for the egg industry, while Charlotte was a microbiologist with the CDC. Both have been retired for a number of years now. Still active and mobile, they’re actually older than some of their “customers.”
While Billie Jo says she’s 81, Charlotte won’t give her age. “I’m real old,’’ she says. (Billie Jo quickly points out, though, that Charlotte still plays tennis.)
The two old friends prefer to do the Meals route together, delivering food to 12 to 14 customers on each run.
“We decided it was one of the volunteer things we wanted to do,’’ Billie Jo says.
Their first stop on a humid June morning is for a woman who is being transported to a physician’s office. They drop off her food, then cross the street to deliver a meal to Mildred Griggs, 79, who’s sitting on her own screened-in porch.
Mildred gets meals five days a week through Senior Connections, a local nonprofit agency. She lives alone, like many of the Meals on Wheels clients.
She tells a reporter that the meal deliveries are a great help to her.
Billie Jo and Charlotte say many of the clients they serve are in wheelchairs or are homebound, Programs like Meals on Wheels help such people stay in their homes, the two friends say.
The Meals food is simple and nutritious, with a typical lunch having meat or another protein, vegetables, and a carbohydrate.
The duo’s next visit is to Arcelia Vaughn, 80, whom they call “Miss Vaughn.” She is lying back in a recliner chair that’s almost a bed. Posted in her lap or beside it are a telephone, a remote control, napkins and vials of medicine.
Miss Vaughn has rheumatoid arthritis, a heart condition and other ailments.
She’s grateful for Meals on Wheels. “I don’t know what I would do without it,” she says.
Miss Vaughn gets a hot lunch and a frozen breakfast from the program, and they make a big difference. “I can’t get up and do it myself,’’ she admits.
She also has other help: Habitat for Humanity has repaired her home, and she gets homemaker services as well.
The CEO of Senior Connections, Debra Furtado, says that while home and community services for housebound people can cost $20,000 a year, a nursing home can cost $70,000.
Senior Connections delivers 2,500 meals per day, as far south as the Macon area.
An estimated 5,000 Georgia seniors still need meals, Furtado says. “My guess is that it’s greater than that.”
“Georgia ranks in the bottom 10 states when it comes to senior hunger,’’ she adds.
A vital connection
A meal delivery is more than just a food drop. It also serves as a social visit, and a daily medical check of sorts.
“A lot of them don’t see anybody,’’ Billie Jo says of their clients.
Kathy Floyd of the Georgia Council on Aging points to a recent national study showing that people getting daily deliveries of meal had better mental health and less anxiety, and experienced fewer falls and hospitalizations. That’s because some potential medical crises were pre-empted by the meal deliverers, who checked in on how their clients were doing.
Bessie Winfrey, 83, smiles as the two ladies drive up. She’s sitting on her porch facing a row of potted plants and flowers. A relative has brought her stalks of corn as well.
“A lot of times I don’t have to cook meals,” she says.
Laura Health, 82, struggles to come to the door. She also lives by herself, and moves slowly, using a cane. She speaks of the value of the food delivery: “I can’t get around to fix me something to eat.”
Billie Jo and Charlotte later visit a high-rise apartment building and split up, delivering to different people.
Dorothy Ervan-Imasuen, at 63, is the youngest person on the women’s route. She is in a power chair when she greets her visitors. The meal program “helps me so much. It’s just heat and eat.”
“I can’t walk,’’ she says, pointing to her knee and foot problems.
Lois Battle is the last client on their route. She’s also the oldest, at 93. And she may be the most gregarious.
Lois talks freely about herself. She was the mother of five children, but two of them died. “I went on with my life,” she says.
She is open about her religious faith, thanking “The Man Upstairs” for the good things she has. As the meals arrive, she is out on the porch, enjoying the sight of the flowers she has growing there.
As for the meals, she makes clear that they come in handy now that her cooking days are mostly behind her. “I’m older,” she says. “I can’t fix what I want.”
Funding is tight
Funding is always a worry with programs like this one. Lyons of Senior Citizens says the organization had to cut back Meals deliveries from five days a week to three. (The volunteer brings a hot meal for immediate consumption along with a frozen one for the client to eat the next day.)
Fewer visits per week means fewer checks on people’s well-being, she notes. “Some clients have fallen and have lain there until the next delivery,’’ Lyons says.
And she notes that in many places in Georgia, the situation is far worse than in urban and suburban areas such as DeKalb County.
“Seniors living in smaller communities have the highest need,’’ she says. “My heart goes out to people in rural areas.”
Lyons points out that an older adult can be fed for a year for about $1,300. The Meals program, Lyons says, “is the single most important way to keep people in their homes and independent.”
A sense of camaraderie
Being longtime friends, Billie Jo and Charlotte like to chat as they make their rounds in DeKalb. They exchange comments about the yards, homes and even the people’s hairstyles that they see along their route.
And they recall that they’ve had some “adventures” while delivering. Billie Jo once inadvertently walked onto a covered swimming pool while carrying meals to a customer, and the cover gave way.
“I was carrying boxes of frozen food,’’ she says. She got out safely, but ended up being “soaked from my waist down.”
“The boxes were floating,” she adds.
The two delivery partners finish up their route within two hours, and arrive back at the church. As they reflect on their latest run, they say Meals on Wheels is their favorite volunteer activity.
Charlotte says as they unload their empty cooler and bags, “I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile when I do this.”