As 2022 arrives, the United States has been dealing with an ever-changing COVID-19 threat for 22 months now—and few groups have been as negatively impacted as homebound senior citizens.

For many of these seniors, their only regular human contact has come thanks to the volunteers and employees of Meals on Wheels.

“When COVID-19 hit, millions of older adults found themselves more vulnerable and in need of urgent support, practically overnight,” the Meals on Wheels America website explains. “Meals on Wheels rose to the challenge to deliver 19 million more meals and (serve) an additional 1 million seniors. By July 2020, the Meals on Wheels COVID-19 Response Fund enabled us to successfully scale our efforts (nationwide) to serve 47% more seniors than pre-pandemic and increased the number of meals we distributed by 77%. Meals on Wheels America sent $31.3 million directly to the frontlines during the pandemic. That’s more than 1,000 grants to support 628 local communities. Our impact spanned the nation and went into the communities that needed it most.”

Here in the Coachella Valley, the Meals on Wheels programs, which operate out of some area senior centers, answered the call, and have kept up with the fluctuating demand since.

“We’re in it for the duration, right?” said Wes Winter, the executive director of the Mizell Center in Palm Springs, during a recent interview with the Independent. “So whatever the demand is, we’re going to meet it. It’s not as high now as it was initially back when this all hit us in March of 2020. Back then, our numbers skyrocketed very quickly, from about 450 meals a day to about 800 meals a day. We hovered at 800 for quite a while; that (number represents) home-delivered meals and what used to be congregate meals. Remember that pre-COVID, folks used to be able to go into a congregate meal site, sit down, dine with their friends and have a very social lunch time. But once COVID-19 hit, all of the congregate sites that we supplied meals to, including our site here at Mizell, switched over to takeout meals. Folks have to come pick their meal up. … Our numbers are down now to about 675 meals per day, which is not as high as it was at the peak, but it’s still higher than it was before. I have a feeling that it’s going to hover around this level from here on out.”

Jack Newby is the executive director of the Joslyn Center, which provides about 65 meals per day to its MOW homebound senior participants.

“The program has grown, and there have been some changes,” Newby told the Independent. “Earlier this year, we worked with the county of Riverside to supply people with emergency meals if they were needed, because people couldn’t get out and were concerned about their health. We worked with them here in the central Coachella Valley, mostly in Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells and some in La Quinta. Also, some of the cities had been (participating in) the Great Plates program, which ended (earlier this year). Individuals who had been in that program transitioned over to our program or other MOW programs here in the valley. Definitely, we have seen an increase in need.”

Mizell’s Winter said its MOW program home-delivers about 325 meals per day, across the entire length of our valley. The Mizell MOW was one of the recipients of a much needed financial grant from the aforementioned Meals on Wheels America COVID-19 Response Fund. It enabled Winter’s team to purchase another delivery vehicle to help meet the increased demand.

A Mizell Center Meals on Wheels delivery person brings a meal to the home of a participant. Photo courtesy of Mizell Center

Another 350 or so daily meals are provided via Mizell’s takeout meal service, run out of the center’s kitchen in Palm Springs. Mizell was getting ready to start welcoming clients back for congregate meals soon—but the arrival of omicron has put those plans on hold.

Winter has to rely on a stable team of employees and volunteers to prepare the food, package it and get it distributed to those in need.

“At times, it’s been hard to hold on to staff,” Winter said. “We have lost some people that we loved dearly who, for whatever reason, chose to move on. But we’ve been able to replace them, so our staff census is about the same as it was. … The staff on the Meals on Wheels program have been absolutely amazing. All the way from the kitchen staff to the MOW administrative staff, to the drivers, everybody understands just how important their program is, and they’ve stuck with it. We have had very little turnover there, maybe one or two employees.”

At the Joslyn Center, Newby relies completely on a volunteer group to get meals delivered.

“Usually, each volunteer will pick one or two routes a week. Their dedication is the backbone of our program,” Newby said. “We’ve been fortunate that if a volunteer calls in, and they are unable to deliver for us that day, we are able to find someone else to help us out, even on short notice. So we’re very fortunate with our volunteers, and we’re always looking for more to help us out. One of the biggest logistical challenges of the program is keeping the volunteers scheduled and getting everything out on time. … Delivery drivers (drop off meals) to every customer once a day, five days a week. If people need frozen meals to eat over the weekend, then we provide them with those, too.

“Actually, we just completed a survey of our Meals On Wheels clients. So many people are experiencing increased anxiety around issues related to COVID-19 as well as the (security of) their food situation. Over 90% of the respondents said that our MOW program had reduced their anxiety, since they didn’t have to be concerned about where they could obtain their meals.”

While many MOW recipients no longer have to worry about food, isolation continues to be a huge problem as the pandemic drags on.

“Loneliness is the biggest impact that we’re seeing,” Winter said. “The (clients who get) home delivery are unable to get out and about in the community. … They really depend on folks coming to them, so it’s been hard for them. They really are missing that physical contact, whether a hug or a handshake that they used to get. We hear about that all the time from our delivery staff.

A senior couple receives a delivery from the Joslyn Center Meals on Wheels program. Photo courtesy of the Joslyn Center

“Over the last several months, we’ve seen that sheltering relax quite a bit. We’ve opened our doors, and people are coming in. Because many of the homebound people are vaccinated now, they’ve been able to invite friends and family into their homes again. You know, the Omicron variant has just gotten here, so I don’t really know if that’s changed anything for these participants yet.”

Newby said his staff and volunteers have doubled down on their efforts to make sure Joslyn’s MOW clients feel connected.

“We’ve always known that the isolation experienced by seniors who receive Meals on Wheels is a real issue,” Newby said. “We have a supplemental calling program where we call all of the clients to touch base with them and find out if they need anything. For instance, if they need any other kind of social service assistance, we connect them with that. … We try to take a kind of holistic approach, and the response from them has been very positive. We can help relieve some of the stresses that they’re experiencing around COVID-19, and their inability to have visitors since many of them are in very frail health.”

“Loneliness is the biggest impact that we’re seeing. … They really are missing that physical contact, whether a hug or a handshake that they used to get. We hear about that all the time from our delivery staff.

Wes Winter, executive director of the Mizell Center, regarding meals on wheels clients

Another major challenge involved helping MOW recipients get vaccinated.

“Earlier in 2021, one of the things we did at Mizell was hold two COVID-19 vaccine clinics here in our building. The people who came to those clinics had, by and large, been sheltering at home for an entire year,” Winter said. “No exaggeration: We had people bursting into tears when they came through our doors to get their shots. It was partly because they were so relieved that the vaccine was available to them, but also because they were so happy to see other people. It’s been very hard on seniors to be sheltering at home alone.”

Of course, MOW clients who are homebound could not get to the center for a clinic.

“We have worked with the Desert Care Network to get folks lined up with appointments, then staff from the Desert Care Network went to the homes of our participants and actually gave them their vaccination in their home,” Winter said. “After we’d done that, the county of Riverside stepped up and did the same thing with our team members who connected other participants with county personnel, who then went to homes to administer the vaccines.”

As the country faces uncertainty caused by hyper-contagious omicron variant, we asked both Winter and Newby if they had a message they wanted to deliver to their Coachella Valley neighbors.

“Through the end of January 2022, we are in our annual appeal mode, if you will,” Newby said. “So people can go online to joslyncenter.org and designate that they want their contribution to be used to support the Meals on Wheels or our Penny’s Pantry food bank programs. Any kind of financial support between now and the end of January would be appreciated.”

Winter responded: “Particularly here at the holiday season, the first thing that comes into my mind is gratitude. Our senior participants have been so well taken care of by the community during this very unusual time. When March 2020 came along, and we had to close our doors to the public, we were really worried about what was going to happen. Would we be able to stay afloat during this time, and how long would it last? … The public just stepped up. We got calls from people who we hadn’t heard from in a long time. We heard from new folks who came into the fold. So, we’ve been taken care of very well by the community here in the Coachella Valley. We are so grateful for that. People are eating every day because of that help.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...

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