Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Jeff Fletcher snaps on his black latex gloves before he puts a warm, pre-made meal of peas, carrots, beef patty and gravy along with a newspaper in a plastic bag. Bag in hand, he walks up to a door and knocks. He loops the plastic handles around the door and takes a few steps back. As the door cracks open, he greets an elderly woman: “Hello, here’s your meal.”
A smile rests on her face as she thanks him. She grabs her meal and closes the door.
This is a normal day for Fletcher, a substitute driver for Meals on Wheels of Albuquerque, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Since the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in New Mexico, the Albuquerque home food delivery service has had to change the way it delivers meals to the elderly.
“It’s definitely a different way of doing things,” said Shauna Frost, the group’s executive director. “We’ve never gone through a pandemic before.”
Before the pandemic, Meals on Wheels hand-delivered meals to clients. Sometimes volunteers would stay and chat; others would perform small tasks for the elderly like getting them a glass of water. Now volunteers are changing gloves after every meal delivered, slathering on hand sanitizer and maintaining about 6 feet of distance between themselves and the client.
Rinse and repeat for about 600 meals per day, every day across the Albuquerque area.
Aside from the food, Meals on Wheels tries to provide a personal connection to its clients with welfare checks and providing personal interaction.
“About 80% of the people we deliver to say that the volunteer is the only person they see or talk to on a regular basis,” Frost said. “Social isolation is a huge part of being unhealthy.”
Social isolation can lead to poorer health outcomes and can contribute to depression.
“Having a daily meal delivery, just the fact that someone is coming to your door to check on you to see if you’re safe, reduces the risk of falls for seniors,” Frost said.
About 250 volunteers take on this herculean task but most of the drivers like Fletcher, over the age of 60, are at higher risk for coronavirus. Frost said the program is prepared to move into the next step and deliver five meals to clients once a week, however, this would put most of the elderly volunteers out of work for their safety. To continue their work, Frost hopes to enlist younger people to help.
“We are here, we are still delivering, and we plan to continue to deliver throughout the crisis and we have plans in place to continue to do so,” Frost said. “We really rely on the community to continue doing what we’re doing.”
For Fletcher, a retired oil and gas worker, volunteering is something he enjoys, but he knows there are risks to being out and interacting with others at this time.
“It’s a very much needed service,” Fletcher said. “As long as I practice some basic protocol, washing my hands and using gloves, I feel pretty safe.”
What’s given Fletcher inspiration since the start of the pandemic is the clients’ positive reception to the program’s changes because they’re “very concerned about their meals.”
“It’s a meal a day. That’s my dinner,” Patsy Ball, a Meals on Wheels client, said through a glass door. Like other New Mexicans, finding food at grocery stores has been an issue, but she’s grateful she has a son-in-law who will go to multiple stores to find what she needs.
“That’s determination – that’s a son-in-law, wouldn’t you say,” she said. Since the virus’ arrival, Ball has had to stay home.
“I can’t get out – it’s a public prison.”
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