Achamma Mathew, who has been working as a kitchen aid at the Juneau Senior Center for more than 14 years, displays a tray of fresh fruit served to lunch patrons.
John Holland, the Juneau Senior Center food service manager, displays how the hot meals for home delivery are packaged, awaiting pickup form volunteer drivers, whose services are currently in demand.
Mike Elmer, (from left) kitchen aide; Daniel Peters, cook; Achamma Mathew, kitchen aide; and John Holland, food service manager.
Story last updated at 1/16/2013 - 2:16 pm
At 10:30 a.m. I entered the passenger seat of a silver colored sedan parked behind the Juneau Senior Center and the Mountain View Apartments. The vehicle was loaded with two gray totes containing brown paper bags. Wilma Kirkpatrick was at the wheel.
"The body is failing, and the brain still works and the mouth always works," Kirkpatrick said, as we headed across the bridge to Douglas Island. Kirkpatrick is 82. She's a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels, a program that provides meals to seniors who are house-bound. She carried a clipboard with a list of names, addresses, and special notes, like, "knock and enter," "hidden key located...," and "only give the meal to the person that opens the door."
Kirkpatrick is responsible for dropping off meals made at the senior center to qualified individuals on two of the Douglas routes. She wore a purple nylon jogging top as she pulled into various driveways and parking lots. In between each stop she explained how every recipient is different.
"Some you knock, and wait, some you just go in," she said. "One guy I just set it on the counter."
The "it" is an intentionally designed meal, based on specific nutrition guidelines, made each weekday at the senior center.
Marianne Mills is the program director of Southeast Senior Services, an organization that, among other duties, coordinates the Meals on Wheels program.
"Our mission is to help older Alaskans maintain their health and independent living and quality of life for as long as possible," Mills said.
Each morning, a kitchen team prepares lunch for about 150 people, around 70 meals are individually packaged for the eight delivery routes, from Auke Bay to north Douglas Island. The rest are consumed at the senior center. The team works off of a weekly meal schedule that dictates the portions and components of each meal. Three ounces of meat or a meat substitute, a two and a half cup serving of vegetables or fruit, a slice of bread or bread alternative and eight ounces of milk or a milk substitute was on the list the day I drove with Kirkpatrick.
Until he retired last summer, David DeHoyes was the boss in the kitchen.
"Any time something is substituted, it has to be replaced with a food that has the same kind of vitamin content," DeHoyes said. "For example, yesterday you didn't have fruit slaw, but we provided fresh oranges."
DeHoyes had taken the job to be closer to his aging mother, who had been a resident at the Mountain View Apartments. As he talked about his job and his upcoming departure, he showed off the equipment in the kitchen. For the meals that would be leaving the facility, the hot entrée, starch and vegetable - if it's cooked - are sealed into individual disposable containers by a special machine. Wax-coated plastic bottles are heated in boiling water and placed into a bag with the hot food to keep it warm. Salads and milk are placed into brown paper bags with individual's names. The bags are placed into large gray tubs with labels like, "Valley 1," and "Valley 2" designating to which route they are bound.
Drivers like Kirkpatrick then load up the totes and head out.
"We will only serve seniors who can't come to the center for lunch, or adults with physical disabilities that are eligible for the Medicaid Waiver program," Mills said.
Mills said that it's often social service professionals and family members who sign up meal recipients. A problem, Mills said, is that often seniors are unaware that they have to be unable to physically get to the senior center in order to be eligible for home delivery.
"Being in a wheel chair doesn't count, because they could take the caravan," Mills said, referring to a ride service. "They must be homebound."
If they're not homebound, Mills said, "We'd prefer they come to the senior center; it's better for them to socialize."
And socialize they do. Around 11:45 a.m. each weekday afternoon, around 30 seniors, about one third of which are residents of the Mountain View apartments, arrive for a hot lunch.
Thirteen round tables are arranged inside a large dining area inside the senior center, each with four chairs. Achamma Mathew, a 73-year-old kitchen aide, sets up and helps serve each meal. Mathew has been working at the senior center for more than 14 years.
As she set up the tables with large shakers of grated cheese, Mountain View resident Agnes Wolfe walked in. Wolfe has a wolf of a mind for being in her early 90s. She's sharp and spry. When asked how she was feeling, she replied, "As well as to be expected." Part of her attitude that afternoon may have been the result of a recent cribbage game; Wolfe is a fixture in the weekly tournaments hosted in the community room outside of the dining room, and she likes to win.
"Eat your salad," Wolfe instructed me.
You don't argue with her. Even if you're not keen on the dressing choice.
Patrons more than 60 years old are welcome in the Senior Center for lunch, though a $5 donation is requested. People under 60 are welcome to come eat, and are asked to pay $8.
A woman with a walker trooped by our table. She asked Wolfe for help mending a pair of her pajamas. They were too long. Wolfe agreed. It's this kind of socialization that's fostered by group lunches.
"We encourage people to come here," Zach Hozid, the Meals on Wheels volunteer coordinator, said. "They're getting some interaction. It's also easier on the program if they come here; it's less driving for our volunteers."
Hozid has been the volunteer coordinator since July 2012. He had been involved with various social service organizations for six years (he's 22), but hadn't worked with the senior population before accepting this job.
"I've done a lot of stuff working with youth and behavior change, and this is not like that," Hozid said. "It's providing a service to those in need, so it's different. It's a different kind of problem solving."
By problem solving he means the puzzle of coordinating volunteer drivers and keeping track of what residents need, or don't.
"We have a regular list of people that deliver each route," he said. "If someone cancels it's my job to find a replacement. I train new volunteers, recruit volunteers. I adjust the routes as needed, add people to them, take people out. If routes get too big I split them into two."
He also does a lot of the client intake process, as well as track statistics: the meals program is funded through various grants, and the program is required to give monthly updates on the number of clients, meals they received, how many volunteer hours were put in, and, a point in need of acute attention, how many program volunteer drivers they have.
"Right now we have a growing number of homebound seniors," Mills said. Last year 20,149 meals were delivered. "We're looking for volunteers."
Specially, she said, she'd like to find five people for the newly added north Douglas route. This just requires that someone be willing to drive around the various residences once a week, a process than can take less than an hour. She added that they always need substitutes as well. Though Mills pointed out that the community has been quite generous with their time, (the Coast Guard in particular, she said, has been wonderful), in order for the program to work, for homebound residents to get lunches, they need more help.
"Finding volunteers is the hardest part," Hozid said, adding that locating a substitute is also quite difficult. "It can be tough, because if (a volunteer) is not available I do it on my own, which takes time from other things I have to do. The more available people I have on call the nicer it is."
Hozid said the delivery process can be relatively flexible.
"We suggest they pick up the meals between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.," he said. The routes may contain between one and 15 stops. "I think it's good that people understand that taking care of seniors is very important."
This is a great service to provide for those in need, and the volunteers really make the program run and their efforts are very much appreciated by myself and the clients and their families.
Hozid said that the volunteers aren't just supplying a meal; they're also acting as a safety check.
"The volunteers seem to find it really rewarding," Mills said. "Not just delivering the hot nutritious meal to the older person, but talking with them and getting to know these other people, some of whom are lonely. They can't spend a lot of time socializing with them, but for some it's the only socializing they get."
Hozid agreed that the Meals on Wheels program is more than just a home delivery service.
"It brings the community more closely together and encourages (interaction with) people they might not normally see on a daily basis," he said. It illuminates a level of care and understanding that, as Hozid said, "Is better for the community as a whole."
To volunteer to be a driver for the Meals on Wheels, contact Zach Hozid at 463-6179. Homebound seniors can also call to register for meal delivery.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.