By LEE J. KAHRS
RUTLAND/ADDISON COUNTY — Jean Hance started receiving Meals on Wheels two years ago, two days a week.
“I had had a small stroke, and it was very helpful to have those meals delivered for every day of the week,” she said. “Then when I got better, I thought I didn’t need it, so I knocked it down to two days a week.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Hance reached out to Age Well, the senior services organization that administers the Meals on Wheels program serving Addison, Chittenden and Franklin counties.
“I called Age Well last week and I said, ‘I don’t think I’m entitled to any more services,’ and they said, ‘Oh, yes you are!’ and that was that.”
Hance is 90 years old and lives independently in a Vergennes senior housing complex. She said Meals on Wheels has been a tremendous help to her.
“It’s fabulous,” she said. “They’re absolutely wonderful, and now that I’m 90, I don’t get to the store as much.”
Hance added that the meals are delicious and healthy.
“It’s been like a miracle,” she said. “I love it, and I love living here. I’ve never known another state that takes care if its seniors like Vermont does. My kids are in California so it’s really a relief for them that I’m being taken care of. Hopefully we can stay well.”
Everyone is getting a taste of what it’s like to live in isolation. The Stay Home, Stay Safe directive to combat the spread of the coronavirus is separating neighbors from neighbors and family from family as we all try to flatten the curve.
But what if your circumstances already ensured a life of social distancing? What if you had little or no family living close by, and no close neighbors?
What if you were retired and elderly, a widow or widower, and lived alone?
“It’s so much more than food,” said Tracey Shamberger, director of Public Relations and Busi- ness Development for Age Well. “Our volunteers develop a life- long connection to clients. They develop friendships, and for some people, this is their only social interaction.”
One year ago, Age Well served 892 clients Addison, Chittenden and Franklin counties. Right now, they serve 1,200 Meals on Wheels clients.
Exacerbating the issue is the fact that the program lost 108 volunteers when the pandemic hit. But Shamberger pounded the virtual pavement and found 300 new volunteers. She reached out to civic organizations, regional Chambers of Commerce, the United Way and others to find new helpers.
“They all put out weekly news- letters and many of them have COVID-19 resource guides, so I made sure we were listed,” she said. “To let them know we needed volunteers, but also to let them know the services we offer.”
That list of Age Well services is long. Topics of expertise include:
• Caregiver support
• Care and Service Coordination
• Choices for Care
• Home health and in-home services
• Housing and Transportation
• Long-term care services
• Meals on Wheels and community meal programs
• Medicare and other health insurance
• Mental health services
• Nursing and residential facilities
• Prescription assistance pro- grams
• Senior centers
• SSI and Social Security • Support groups
In Rutland, there is a more urgent need for volunteer delivery drivers and packers for the Meals on Wheels program. Penny Jones is the office manager for Lindley Food Service, which contracts with the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging and Age Well to provide all of the meals for the program from Rutland County to the Canadian border.
“Right now, we’re doing 4,000 to 5,000 meals a day,” Jones said. That is an increase of 2,500 meals since the pandemic began in mid-March.
But the program also lost dozens of volunteers, many of whom are seniors themselves, when the pandemic hit.
“We have doubled up drivers to two and three routes a day,” Jones said.
And since the pandemic began, the Rutland Age Well distribution hub is also serving nine hotels housing people in need in Rutland, Killington and Brandon.
Drivers wear masks and gloves, and leave the meals outside the client’s front door. Then they wait in their cars until they see the client pick up the meals. It’s called “Call, Drop and Ob- serve.”
“We want to see the person come out,” Jones said. “We can’t go in and check on them, but we do a well being check from the car.”
While Meals on Wheels used to deliver hot meals, now all the meals are refrigerated or fro- zen, and clients heat them up as needed.
Jones said anyone interested in volunteering for Meals on Wheels should be able to devote at least one hour once a week to travel to Rutland to volunteer, and have a vehicle large enough to hold five or six large containers of food. Thursdays are the busiest days, as packers assemble Friday, Saturday and Sunday meals for delivery each Friday. Last Friday, they packed 1,700 meals for delivery.
In order to keep those connections during the pandemic, Age Well has roughly 100 volunteers working the phones every day, checking in with clients.
“We asking them how they’re feeling and do a daily check-in,” Shamberger said. “And nobody wants to get back to see them more than we do, but we’re following Vermont Department of Health, CDC, and Agency on Aging and Independent Living guidelines. We’re full steam ahead.”
To volunteer to help pack and deliver meals, contact Penny Jones at (802) 775-0133.
To sign up for Meals on Wheels, or to access any other Age Well services, call the Help Line at 1-800-642-5119.