Each year, Meals on Wheels delivers thousands of hot meals to Denton County seniors 60 and older who are homebound due to physical or emotional health. Eligibility also depends on whether applicants are able to prepare nutritious meals for themselves or if they live with anyone who could help them.
Michelle McMahon, executive director of Special Programs for Aging Needs of Denton County, said the seniors served by the program already rely heavily on it for food. And as it becomes increasingly risky for seniors to leave their homes, she said, it is essential to give them the food they need so they can stay at home.
“It's more important than ever, even though they were getting out so little before. Now, we really want to make sure they don't have to because this is a matter of limiting their exposure to the virus,” McMahon said.
McMahon said the organization will change its meal delivery strategy starting March 23 to minimize the amount of contact seniors have with volunteers. Instead of delivering a hot meal daily, volunteers will drop off five frozen meals once a week.
“We’re taking great precautions to follow social distancing guidelines,” said Kristine Herrera, SPAN senior service program manager for Meals on Wheels of Denton County. “Our volunteers are bringing meals in plastic bags and setting them on the porches of our seniors. And when the seniors come out to get the meals, they make sure to stay six feet away from them.”
The organization is also working to purchase additional nonperishable food items to include in deliveries.
“We want to be as prepared as possible,” McMahon said.
Though the program cannot accept food donations due to state nutritional guidelines that must be met, those wanting to help can donate directly to the Meals on Wheels program online or by sending a check in the mail.
“Any donations would be helpful, especially because we're having to do a reduction of workforce and trying to figure out how to make sure we can continue to take care of employees,” McMahon said.
Senior Paws, a fully donation-based program, is also in need of support, she said. The program was created after staff members realized that some seniors served by Meals on Wheels were sacrificing their hot meal delivery so that their pets could eat. The program provides dog and cat food to any seniors served by Meals on Wheels who need it.
“Our Senior Paws program is so important because our seniors need to feed their companions,” McMahon said. “We don’t want these seniors to worry that they're not going to be able to get out to get any pet food, if they could even physically leave their home or afford it in the first place. We want them to have what they need and to get it while staying home.”
Community members who want to make a monetary donation to the program can do so online by leaving a note that the money is meant specifically for the program, she said.
The program is also in need of physical donations of dog and cat food, which can be dropped off at the SPAN office in Denton. Those who do not want to go out can also purchase the food on Amazon and have it delivered to the office, McMahon said.
For many, Meals on Wheels provides much more than just food.
“Our deliveries are made by volunteers, and 90% of the time, it’s the same volunteers delivering meals to the same seniors, day after day,” McMahon said. “They really build a rapport and get to know each other. And that’s one thing that helps family members, just knowing somebody is checking up on Mom and Dad every day.”
Meal deliveries also serve as daily checkups for many seniors. Volunteers regularly call the family members of the seniors they serve to let them know that their loved one is doing OK.
McMahon said that while deliveries will soon decrease as meals are delivered in bulk, the daily check-ins will not stop.
“Of course, the decrease of in-person visits is so sad because often, volunteers are the only people our seniors see during the day, but right now, everyone’s health is our top priority,” McMahon said. “So now, instead of our seniors seeing our volunteers, they're going to be getting a phone call everyday.”
Volunteers will call the same seniors that they usually visit, she said.
“We want to keep that relationship going,” McMahon said. “This is now super crucial for them because whereas visits used to serve as a little extra social contact, now, our phone calls will be important to provide that companionship during social distancing. We want our volunteers to be able to help reduce our seniors' anxiety because everyone is feeling it right now.”