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This is Growing Old Episode 42: How to Make a Difference this Holiday Season with Meals on Wheels

December 1, 2021   |   Alliance for AgingResearch   |   Nutrition, COVID-19, Other Policy Priorities

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Show Notes

Colder weather is upon us, and that means that many older adults may be isolated at home. Here to talk about how Meals on Wheels is making a difference is Meals on Wheels President and CEO Ellie Hollander.

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hi everybody, and welcome to This is Growing Old, a podcast from the Alliance for Aging Research. I’m Sue Peschin, President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. Cold weather is upon us, and that means that many older adults may be isolated at home. Here to talk about how Meals on Wheels is making a difference is Meals on Wheels president and CEO, Ellie Hollander. Ellie, thank you so much for joining us on This is Growing Old.

Ellie Hollander:

Sue, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Sue Peschin:

Many people may not realize that Meals on Wheels does so much more beyond providing meals. Please tell our listeners a little bit about Meals on Wheels and all the different services that you provide.

Ellie Hollander:

Sure. Well, I’m always excited and proud to talk about Meals on Wheels because it serves as such a vital lifeline for millions of seniors in communities across the country, small and large, suburban, urban, and rural. And we say that we’re more than just a meal because is I always like to say that the meal is the entree to kind of opening the door to a number, a host of services that are available to vulnerable seniors in need.

Ellie Hollander:

And it’s not just about nutritious food, although that is critically important. But it’s also about a friendly visit, the socialization, the eyes and the ears between a volunteer or a Meals on Wheels staff member and the senior that they’re there to serve. So oftentimes, we may notice a safety hazard in the home. We may see that our client has a pet that’s in need that also needs a meal. And some times it’s just home repairs or connections with other services in the community that are really important that the senior needs to know about.

Ellie Hollander:

And so we really believe, and I know that you do too, that social determinants of health, which is where people live, where they grew up, where they work, play, pray all have really important influence on the health and wellbeing of that senior. So all of that needs to be taken into consideration by Meals on Wheels. And our staff and volunteers across the country are all committed to helping seniors live more safely, healthy and independent in their own homes.

Sue Peschin:

Excellent. Okay. Well, we saw a shocking statistic on your website that before the COVID-19 pandemic, 83% of low income food insecure seniors weren’t receiving the meals that they needed. It’s really devastating and much higher than we thought. And we imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem. So how has the pandemic impacted the older adults that you serve and how did Meals on Wheels adapt during the pandemic?

Ellie Hollander:

Well, first of all, I’m really pleased that you picked up that, I would say staggering statistic, as you mentioned that eight out of 10 before the pandemic vulnerable seniors likely needed Meals on Wheels and weren’t getting it. I use that statistic a lot because I think it’s mind blowing. And what it speaks to is the unmet need across our country.

Ellie Hollander:

And the pandemic, what it did really was to shine a light on two preexisting, long term epidemics around senior hunger and isolation. Before the pandemic ever hit, probably one in six seniors were struggling with hunger and that’s just in a country as rich as America. It’s hard to accept. But these are seniors that generally are sort of behind closed doors. And so many millions more lived in isolation.

Ellie Hollander:

What happened during the pandemic though that even more seniors were forced into home bound status because for their own safety. Senior centers, which is sort of interesting, because people always think of Meals on Wheels as just being delivered into the home. But what’s important is that most of our Meals on Wheels programs also provided meals in senior centers or locations where groups of seniors could come together with their peers to have meals, to exercise, to educate each other.

Ellie Hollander:

And those were closed basically overnight because of the pandemic. So what programs needed to do was sort of, I hate the word pivot because that’s being used so much, but really overnight to adapt their service model to suspend service in these group settings, these congregate locations. Turn those into grab and go drive through meal sites where seniors who were more mobile could get to, grab maybe meals for a week or two weeks, and then take them home.

Ellie Hollander:

But similarly, the pandemic also forced us to change our high touch model for home bound seniors, which was normally knock on the door, enter the home, check in on people, have that friendly visit. But with the need to be physically distant, the going into the home had to be sort of adjusted. And only in dire cases, particularly at the height of the pandemic, were we able to go into the homes.

Ellie Hollander:

We always made sure that that senior was okay by knocking on the door, announcing ourselves, stepping back at least feet, making sure that the senior was able to get their meal. And then we’ve augmented that over the past 19 months with telephone check-in calls, cards and other things to make sure that seniors know that we’re there and if they need a helping hand, we’ll make sure they get one.

Ellie Hollander:

In good times, we have over two million volunteers across the country, which could be people that have retired, could be teams that work at companies that want to do team building, and they adopt a route for Meals on Wheels. So because a number of our seniors that volunteer skew older 65 and older, they appropriately needed to take care of their own health and suspend their ability to volunteer.

Ellie Hollander:

So there was, and continues to be honestly, a shortage of volunteers. And with companies also closing down and having people work from home, that really caused some disruption to our logistic supply chain, if you will, at Meals on Wheels. So programs needed to reach out to younger volunteers and also to hire more paid drivers so that there was that consistency of service, which is so critically important.

Sue Peschin:

Last year was a particularly tough holiday season as many older adults couldn’t gather with their families due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, we’re thankful to have a vaccine which will allow us to gather with our loved ones if we’re vaccinated. So still many older adults remain isolated. How can our listeners help Meals on Wheels during the holiday season and throughout the rest of the year?

Ellie Hollander:

Well, it’s a great question. And thank you for asking, because I get asked that question quite a bit, and I always say the same three things and they became even more important in light of the pandemic, which is if you can donate or volunteer or advocate. And they’re different. Let me explain a little bit about each. We talked earlier about the unmet need. The fact that there are studies that show that probably eight out of 10 low income, highly vulnerable seniors before the pandemic needed Meals on Wheels and weren’t getting it. It’s a public private partnership, Sue.

Ellie Hollander:

And what that means is that we have to rely on individuals, companies, foundations, to augment the contributions that the federal government gives for Meals on Wheels. So even if you can only give a little bit, that is a lot, because a little goes a long way with Meals on Wheels. So if you’re able to do that, to help a senior in need across the country, just visit Mealsonwheelsamerica.org/give, and you can provide, continue to provide a vital lifeline to those who need it most.

Ellie Hollander:

If you’re interested in giving back to your community, you can also donate directly to a local program or you can volunteer. And that’s one of the best ways to, I say, fill your soul particularly around the holidays and to make a difference at the same time. If you’re interested in volunteering and you’d like to be connected with a local Meals on Wheels program near you, whether it’s where you live, whether you’re visiting or where you work, you just get on our website Mealsonwheelsamerica.org/americaletsdolunch. No space.

Ellie Hollander:

And today the volunteer opportunities are a little different in depending on the program because of the pandemic. So there still are programs that are looking for volunteers to help deliver meals. But in some cases we need you just to make telephone outreach calls or phone calls to thank donors like yourself who may have stepped up to the plate, just to make those calls to let people know how much we appreciate and rely on that.

Ellie Hollander:

And in other cases, it could be just doing a greeting card to let a senior know that you care. I will say though, because of the pandemic, and I mentioned this, that many programs are in desperate need to volunteers, but some do not need them in the way that they have in the past. And they’re so inundated because the number of seniors in need have grown so much. I neglected to mention this earlier, but at the height of the pandemic programs were basically providing a hundred percent more meals than they were before.

Ellie Hollander:

But even today, as things have scaled back a little bit, they’re still serving about 57% more meals than they were before and to about 44% more seniors. So because that’s their primary focus right now and their wheels are moving as quickly as possible. They may not be able to get back to you immediately if you’re interested in volunteering. So just be patient with that.

Ellie Hollander:

Because I don’t want you to be deterred if you don’t hear immediately back from a Meals on Wheels program. But the last thing is, is that there are other ways of getting involved in helping. And I mentioned a little bit about advocating. But if you get on our website, sorry to keep directing people there, but it’s just chock-full of resources, MealsonWheelsamerica.org/getinvolved will also give you a number of different things that you might be able to do from the comfort of your own home. So thank you for asking, Sue.

Ellie Hollander:

For the folks that were more mobile previously, who were able to get to a senior center, and I mentioned that they were suspended quickly because you don’t want people in a group setting. That was the last thing you wanted. I think a lot of those seniors who then were immediately rendered home-bound because there wasn’t a senior center to go to. I think even friends that I know that are older, if you don’t have the ability to have that social connection, and you’re not physically moving and more mobile, you actually, your health declines much more quickly.

Ellie Hollander:

And many of our programs when we surveyed them, felt that probably a large number of seniors that they had been serving through the pandemic, they will continue to serve because they’re just not either going to be comfortable, physically as mobile or mentally comfortable going back. And it’s so important. Socialization is really critically important. I think that’s one of silver linings, which I hate to say, but I always look at the positive in the pandemic.

Ellie Hollander:

And one of the silver linings is all of us now appreciate what it’s like to not see a given person in a day or a week and how lonely and depressing that that can be. And so I guess, to your point is I think it’s a combination of a number of reasons why millions more seniors will be staying at home and hesitant to go out. There isn’t a one size fits all. We just have to make sure that we are checking in on our senior neighbors so that they know that someone cares.

Sue Peschin:

So Meals on Wheels America advocates for policies to improve the health of older adults. So you’re not just about addressing the problem before you, but trying to prevent it in the future. Can you talk about some of the legislative issues on your advocacy agenda and how the implementation of these policies would help the people that you serve? And I’m interested in what type of connections have you made around the COVID-19 vaccines and the services that you provide?

Ellie Hollander:

Sure. Well, let me back up first. I think it’s important. I mentioned it earlier, but that Meals on Wheels is a public private partnership. And the federal government through the Older Americans Act provides about one-third of the total funding that we get for Meals on Wheels. The rest has to be raised at the state and local level, through private donations, foundations, corporations, and so forth. So it’s very important for Meals on Wheels America to continue to advocate on a range of issues that are focused on improving the health wellbeing of older adults.

Ellie Hollander:

Throughout the year we do this because the Older Americans Act is just one, but the major source, but just one source of federal funding to support these programs. We also want to make sure that community based organizations are getting their due attention on Capitol Hill as well. Because they’ve been bill building this infrastructure for decades to enable them to make sure that seniors can live longer and independently in their own homes and communities.

Ellie Hollander:

So we work hard all year round to build support on Capitol Hill and with the administration to not only advance legislation, but policies that strengthen home delivered and these congregate meal programs, which is just in senior centers and group settings. The volunteers who make this happen and the seniors that they serve to ensure that local communities are able to meet the growing needs of a population that is continuing to escalate. So, but for our conversation today, Sue, what I wanted to focus on was the need for increased federal funding to support the Meals on Wheels network.

Ellie Hollander:

We talked earlier about the unmet need, the fact that resources have never kept pace with need nor inflation. And as the population is growing exponentially, there is a greater and greater gap between the need and our ability to fulfill it. So what we’re really focusing on is ensuring over and over again, that people understand that Meals on Wheels is more than just a meal, that it’s a lifeline for millions of seniors, and that we can actually reduce healthcare costs.

Ellie Hollander:

Because we can keep seniors out of more expensive healthcare settings if they’re getting good nutrition, if they’re getting a visit, if they’re getting someone who’s checking in on them, so that they’re safer. They’re going to be less emergency room visits, admissions and readmissions to hospitals and premature placement in nursing homes, all of which saves billions of dollars annually in healthcare costs.

Ellie Hollander:

And so we really focus on ensuring that the funding, the appropriations for the Older Americans Act is as robust as it can be, and that we don’t fall behind given the fact that we know that the need is growing so quickly. I think the hardest thing around policy and legislation is sometimes the uncertainty that happens when decisions aren’t made quick.

Ellie Hollander:

And we’ve always been a nonpartisan, bicameral, bipartisan issue. Everyone on both sides of the aisle understands the importance of Meals on Wheels. And we’ve been very fortunate with that. And when decisions are being made that leave uncertainty for local programs who do don’t know is the funding going to come through, when it comes through how long is it going to take to get here. I have seniors who are waiting for meals.

Ellie Hollander:

I don’t want them to worry. I want to make sure that if I am pulling from my reserves, that I’m going to be able to replenish those reserves. Because I don’t want to leave any senior behind. And this is really sort of the environment that we’ve been working in. With the pandemic of course, we’ve been advocating frequently for Meals on Wheels to be included in all of the emergency funding packages that have been put forth. And we’ve been very fortunate to get that kind of support.

Sue Peschin:

And we’ve been thrilled to be one of the many, many organizations that have supported those packages so that you can do what you need to do. So I don’t know if you want to go back to this or not. I just know this is an aside, I’m saying. I had discussions with Bob Blancato who we’re a part of his coalition, the NANSP. And I know that there was some language in one of the packages around working with local food programs for connections to COVID vaccines.

Ellie Hollander:

Well, we have been working with a number of different organizations to spread the news about vaccines. Many of our programs have worked with local EMS or other partners in the community to even bring vaccines into the homes of seniors who cannot leave their home and using senior centers as sort of vaccine location spots, where seniors who are familiar with those places and trust them and are comfortable going, would go there. And we did that across the country.

Ellie Hollander:

We’ve seen a lot of that. But also we were also working with other federal agencies, CDC, and others to continue to… It’s particularly in communities that are under vaccinated, if you will, relative to the rest of the country to make sure that people understand the opportunities, the positives of vaccinations. To if possible, dispel myths about that. And just to make sure that we are getting the word out. So Meals on Wheels programs, when we say we’re more than just a meal, we’re doing really all of that.

Ellie Hollander:

All with the intent of ensuring that seniors are as healthy, safe, and independent as they can be so they can choose live out their lives longer in their own homes, if they so choose. That’s really the spirit of all of this. And I think that oftentimes when we talk to Meals on Wheels clients, they say, “I have my Meals on Wheels number right there on my refrigerator, and I always call them. And they help me decide who else I need to talk to about things.” So we kind of think of ourselves as sort of like a one stop shop for helping to connect people with other services that they might need.

Sue Peschin:

Now, here are two questions that we ask all of our podcast guests. When you are a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Ellie Hollander:

Because I grew up in a close knit family that I had my grandparents, my great-grandparents were still living. We got together regularly. I just figured it was just going to be fun and that there would be this support network that would exist for me into perpetuity. And over time, of course, things have really changed. The definition of a family unit has changed.

Ellie Hollander:

People are moving, are not living as close together anymore. So I’ve come to really appreciate the fact that what I had growing up is pretty unique. And so I appreciate Meals on Wheels even more because I want to be sure that we have a Meals on Wheels program for me when I need it, because that’s going to become my extended family when I get to be that age and my one daughter has moved, and has got a life someplace else. I want to make sure someone’s checking in on me.

Sue Peschin:

Okay. And our second question is, what do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Ellie Hollander:

Well, I think it gives me permission to focus on the things that are most important in my life. When I was younger, I felt I needed to say yes to everything and never want to let anybody down. But I’ve become more discerning and I’m much more comfortable saying no to some things. Because time is not limitless. And we all want to make sure that we’re making the most of the time that we have. And it kind of reminded me of an exercise that I did a number of years back.

Ellie Hollander:

I went to a training session. And the exercise was to take a blank piece of paper, everybody, there must have been 50 people in the room and draw a straight line across it and start with zero on the left side of the line and put on the right side of the line how long you thought you would live. It was private just for you. You weren’t checking what other people were putting on there. And then they said, “And then based on that, put a mark where you are now in terms of that zero to a hundred age span,” let’s say. And then, so you put your mark where you are now.

Ellie Hollander:

And then they said, “Now I want you to cross out everything from zero to where you are today and recognize that that’s behind you. And look at from where you are now to where you think you’re going to live, how long that’s going to be. How do you want to make the most of that?” And it’s stuck with me. It was poignant. And I think that I’ve really continued to evaluate if I want to look back at these, the remaining years I have and say, “Did I maximize those? Did I get the most out of it?” And I want to be sure that my values for my age today are mirrored by the way I’m living my life going forward.

Sue Peschin:

Ellie, that was great. Thank you so much for joining us today. It was wonderful talking with you.

Ellie Hollander:

Thank you, Sue. I enjoyed it too.

Sue Peschin:

And thanks to all of our listeners for listening to This is Growing Old. Our intro and outro music is City Sunshine by Kevin MacLeod. I want to give a hat tip to Janelle Germanos, our Manager of Communications. We hope you’re enjoying listening to our podcast. If you’re liking what you’re hearing, please give us a review on Apple Podcast. Thank you and have a wonderful day.

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