Deanna Steinhauer remembers a time before COVID-19.
She had been inspired to join Meals on Wheels locally as a volunteer during her retirement. It was a service her parents relied on, after her mother fell ill and then became paralyzed after a stroke; her father looked after her mother during these times and used the Meals on Wheels program to help her.
As a Spectrum Community Services Meals on Wheels volunteer since February, Steinhauer used to deliver meals directly to seniors and form a unique bond that comes only by talking to his clients.
But now, due to social distancing, those interactions have been cut short.
These days, to deliver emergency meal kits, Steinhauer puts on his gloves and puts on his mask. She recalls her relationship with a male client who had difficulty walking. As a result, she would simply walk into her house, put the meal on her table, and speak.
Their conversations were personal. This is what Steinhauer misses the most.
âI wish I could say it was last week (that we have to distance ourselves socially) because it would be so much better,â she said. “But I don’t think we’ll be going back until everyone else does. I don’t really see an end in sight.”
Despite the limitations, Steinhauer said she was grateful that Spectrum’s Meals on Wheels still helps the elderly.
The new normal
Carrie Oldes, the program manager at Spectrum, described the impact of COVID-19 on the service. The program runs 16 rounds a day and, according to Oldes, at a minimum, needs 16 people to help deliver meals. However, due to a decrease in the number of volunteers, the program has only two volunteers and scrambles to determine who will run each route.
“The need for help is still there,” she said.
No matter the challenges, however, the program always delivers hot meals to clients every day.
âWithout us, for a lot of them, we’re their only lifeline,â Oldes said. “So if we don’t go see them, they won’t see another human being that day.”
The lack of personal interaction was difficult for volunteers and clients. Arguably the personal interactions between them are what is most valued by the program.
Nonetheless, the program, clients and volunteers understand that embracing social distancing is vital for everyone’s safety.
âI don’t know if we will go back to where we went to their homes,â Steinhauer said. “I think it will always be that we drop it at the door. I don’t know if the customers want us to come in and expose anything to anyone.”
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said older people are most at risk for serious illness. In fact, eight in ten deaths from COVID-19 in the United States are people 65 years of age or older. And with the state of California hitting records for deaths from COVID-19, Spectrum’s Meals on Wheels has taken precautions.
âThis is what we have to do, and they appreciate that we take these protocols. They are older and they are nervous about being around people,â said Steinhauer.
According to Alicia Morales, division director of the Aging and Adult Welfare Division of the Alameda County Social Services Agency, all people aged 60 and over are eligible for food assistance. Working with the county and other departments, Spectrum’s Meals on Wheels program has expanded to ensure every senior in need is cared for during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Traditionally, a Meals on Wheels customer is at least 60 years old and cannot leave their home. Although, due to COVID, the service is extending to any senior who can call the program.
âThe COVID-19 crisis has created an unprecedented increase in food insecurity across the county,â Morales said in a public service announcement in May. âSeniors nutrition programs have seen a 100% increase in requests for food and grocery deliveries since the on-site shelter took effect.
Krista Lucchesi is the program director of Mercy Brown Bag, an organization that provides groceries for Spectrum during meal deliveries; Specifically, the program works with low-income seniors in Alameda County.
Lucchesi noted that since COVID-19 hit the Bay Area, there has been a 45% growth in senior customers. Seniors who have never needed this service in the past seek help from Mercy Brown Bag.
With the number of seniors in need of meals increasing, Morales said Alameda County Seniors Programs will serve more than one million meals this year that are good nutrition for seniors.
âGood nutrition is essential for promoting physical and mental well-being,â she said.
Lucchesi said that maintaining a healthy diet can prevent cognitive problems, falls, balance difficulties and muscle weakness.
âFor us, when we talk about nutrition for seniors, it overlaps with the fundamentals of all good nutrition,â she said. “We want to make sure they have enough protein because protein is used for your brain, your muscles, overall to keep you strong.”
With that in mind, Mercy Brown Bag looks for products that are low in sodium, softer foods that address dental issues, and lean protein. Even with high prices for protein products, Mercy Brown Bag is still able to purchase these items for its customers.
“We want people to have as much as possible, which is vital to be strong and prosper,” said Lucchesi.
Spectrum Meals on Wheels and Mercy Brown Bag are determined to do what they can to help seniors in Tri-Valley County and Alameda. Even so, Lucchesi said they couldn’t do it on their own.
She encourages residents to watch older family members, see how they are doing and be a part of their community, especially during these times when older people fear leaving their homes due to COVID-19.
âWe believe that this community bond, especially if you are scared and stay home, is also the element that affects their health,â she said. “We do what we can … but we need a village.”