Meals on Wheels: ‘One Is A Lonely Number’

“There’s a lady on my route who comes to the door with a huge smile on her face. She says I’m just about the only person she talks to on my delivery day.”

By Dave Riley

My first encounter with what I will characterize as senior isolation occurred when I was just eight or nine years old. My friend Gerry and I were walking in the Court Street area of Bangor after playing basketball at the Y, taking a circuitous route home, which was just beyond Little City. “Can you help me?” a woman’s voice called out. We looked up to the left and a lady was standing in the doorway of what could be described as, at the very best, a modest apartment building.

We asked if she was hurt or sick. “No. My hall light has gone out and I can’t put a new one in.” Now kids that age can be a little suspicious of older strangers, and that we were. Nevertheless we walked bravely up to the door and into the hall. She had a new bulb in her hand, and Gerry, who was a bit taller than I, climbed up on a chair, took the old bulb out and put the new one in.

She thanked us, and then asked about where we were going, and we told her. She wanted to know what school we attended, and we told her that too. Did we have brothers or sisters? Gerry and I both had brothers. Pretty soon we realized she didn’t want to let us go.   She desperately wanted company. It turned out she lived alone and her only son was half a continent away in some midwestern state.

Eventually we pulled ourselves away but not before she had given us each an apple as recompense for helping her. Come back again, she said, but we never did.

A while back i went on a ride along with a couple of Meals on Wheels delivery volunteers, retirees Muriel and Al Calfe. By the time the ride was over, I had gotten an updated lesson in how some people are helping seniors cope with their isolation.

The Calfes met years ago in Pittsburgh and have been delivering for the past eight years. Muriel is originally from Manchester, England, and has a delightful accent to prove it. Al is a golfer, who enjoys talking about his younger days as a caddy at the famed Oakmont Country Club.

“Why do you do this?” I asked Al, as we headed out.

“Satisfaction,” he replied. Later he added, “Plus I get to tell all my old jokes that nobody else will laugh at.”

We made uneventful stops at several homes. Then, as we pulled up to one house, Muriel became quite animated, “Come meet Penny,” she said. “You must meet Penny!” When Penny opened the door, I saw instantly why I had to meet her. She is a short slight woman in her 80’s with a contagious smile

Grilled cheese with tomato, like those at a congregate lunch.    (Photo: Pixaboy.)

Grilled cheese with tomato, like those at a congregate lunch. (Photo: Pixaboy.)

and an energetic wit. We all went into her kitchen, and the three of them talked on like old friends. This week the subject was movies. Muriel told Penny about a movie she had seen on TV, “De-Lovely,” a Cole Porter biopic starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. When Muriel mentioned a Robert DeNiro-Liza Minelli movie, Penny said she saw DeNiro in “Goodfellas.”

Al couldn’t resist teasing her. “Goodfellas?” he said. “You went to Catholic schools! What do you think the nuns would say if they knew you went to a movie like that?” We talked on about other things, and eventually we all had to say our goodbyes.

Once we got back to the car, Muriel explained that not all visits were like this. “People like Penny throw their doors open wide for us and say, ‘Come on in!’ Others barely crack the door, take their food and go back inside.” There are, she said, a lot of lonely seniors out there, and she and Al do their best to make them feel good.

Another volunteer, who prefers anonymity, told me that far too many seniors have virtually nobody in their lives. “The spouse has passed on and the kids live ten states away,” he said. “Those people just love spending a few minutes each day talking with me, even though, to be brutally honest, I’m not really an interesting guy. But sometimes anyone will do. There’s a lady on my route who comes to the door with a huge smile on her face. She says I’m just about the only person she talks to on my delivery day. She tells me about her daughter and her flowers. I have to admit it’s very rewarding.”

So besides feeding people, Meals on Wheels creates some important social interaction for people who have little otherwise.

Across the country, Meals on Wheels also hosts weekday lunches, which not only provide nutritious food but a daily social gathering as well. In many parts of the country they are referred to as “congregate lunches,” a name chosen to imply that the event is as much about getting together as it is about eating.

I’ve gone to a number of them at sites not far from where I live. At the largest one there were probably fifty or sixty people, mostly ladies and all of them earnestly engaged with others at their table. I sat with two guys, one of whom told me he and his buddy had been regulars there for several years.

“You know there are two women for every guy in [this community],” one of them said as he looked out over the room. “Two to one. Great odds. But of course most them are at least 70.”

“So are you, Romeo,” his friend cracked.

“But I don’t look it,” he replied.

His buddy laughed. “Oh yeah you do. Yeah you do.”

Rob Crone, Director of Nutrition and Auxiliary Services at the Eastern Area Agency, says his agency has 42 such lunch sites which are known as Community Cafes. The Cafes average about 325 visitors a day.

“Is it primarily a food services thing or is socializing a part of it?” I asked him.

“Absolutely. Socializing is a very big part of it,” he replied.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.