With centers closing, seniors are faced with social isolation and meal take-out and delivery options become important. York Daily Record
Tommy Billet pulled up in front of the town home in East York. He got out and opened the back of his maroon SUV filled with totes of food.
He put on a pair of plastic gloves.
He lifted out a few bags, some with prepared meals of corned beef, cabbage and mashed potatoes for St. Patrick’s Day.
He walked up to the front door and rang the bell.
As soon as Betty Reever, 78, opened it her tiny pug zoomed past legs and into the front yard.
Billet handed her the food and everyone laughed for a moment.
Reever beamed as she talked and joked, as if she come upon a family member or an old friend.
“This means everything because I haven’t been out in weeks,” she said.
Part of that is because she cannot drive, another part is because of growing health concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus.
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“I wish this was over because I’m tired of being in the house,” she said. “The only place where I go is the mailbox.”
‘I may be the only person they see all week’
The food part of these Meals on Wheels driving jobs is maybe only half of the mission. Many times it is simply an entry point into the lives who need much more, according to Billet and other volunteers through the White Rose Senior Center in downtown York.
What they do, certainly enough, can be a critical safety line during this unprecedented virus pandemic.
They are visiting residents who are some of the most vulnerable to a possible life-threatening infection. Most Meals on Wheels clients have underlying health concerns combining with their advanced ages.
And though Billet and other volunteers — mostly seniors themselves — say they must rethink close contact during deliveries, they never considered stopping.
The personal connections they create are too valuable, they say.
“It’s amazing how quickly you establish a relationship with these people. Some of them are like family,” said Jack Messersmith, a volunteer driver who lives in York City. He’s 73.
Messersmith began volunteering two years ago, after he saw the good that Meals On Wheels did for his own parents.
Along the way, he and his wife have grown close enough to one woman on his route that they take her out to Thanksgiving dinner.
They bought another woman shoes after realizing her last pair tore and she didn’t have the means to easily get another.
“I know her and she needed them,” Jack Messersmith said, simply enough, when prompted to tell the story this week. “She had no other way of getting them. There was no other choice. It had to be done.”
As for being a volunteer driver, “This isn’t just doing something nice for a neighbor, this is fulfilling a real need they have. It’s more than just a kind gesture, it’s a necessity.
“I may be the only person they see all week.”
The Meals on Wheels program based out of the White Rose Senior Center serves about 130 clients, three days each week, said Lisa Kraut, the center’s executive director.
They and other senior centers almost always are in need of drivers. They expect that to only rise during the coming weeks as the spread of COVID-19 creates more home-bound seniors.
Volunteers needed for a critical mission
The program is becoming a pillar during a time of so many cuts of communal activity for older citizens. Senior centers around the state closed their doors this week to help stop the spread of the virus. The 100-plus people who come daily to White Rose on Broad Street to spend hours socializing and eating together are now only able to pick up take-out lunches at the front doors.
Those who rely on Meals on Wheels often can’t leave their homes at all without help.
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Mel Strine, 68, said a stroke and a series of heart attacks forced him from his printing job years ago and now keeps him from driving. He relies on Uber and bus rides to get to necessary medical appointments and the grocery store.
Now, he’s being recommended not to leave his East York mobile home at all because of his susceptibility to the virus. With his three sisters living out of state, the Meals on Wheels visits have become a God-send.
Billet said he often will spend 15 or 20 minutes chatting and listening to Strine, who is his final stop on Wednesdays.
“They keep an eye on me. If I’m down, they’ll notify someone,” Strine said with a smile.
Billet, 73, often makes his weekly trips with his girlfriend, Pat Ellsworth, 67. Together, they are a watchful eye on the health and well-being of their clients.
It’s about small but critical observations. Is the air conditioning working in the summer, does it feel warm enough in the winter?
“I’m not a trained psychologist, or a clinician, but there are certain things that you can see that maybe aren’t exactly right,” Billet said. “OK, so what you do is go back and report that.”
Once, a woman who seemed out of sorts and not communicating properly was hospitalized the day after one of his drop-offs. He wonders if she would have ever gotten that care if he didn’t happen to stop by.
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“You realize this is something that somebody’s got to do. And why not me, right?” Billet said. “We’re not heroes. We’re just guys and girls who decided this is something that you got to do.”
Frank Bodani will be covering issues related to seniors. He also is a sports reporter and writes about Penn State football for the York Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at @YDRPennState.
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