At the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, Susan R. told me that front-line workers, which could include deliverers of Meals On Wheels, would get moved to the head of the queue for getting vaccinated against Covid. I thought this was an excellent quid pro quo because, as an older person, I was in greater danger from the effects of Covid than other sub-sets of the population, and the sooner I could get vaccinated, the better. I filled out a lengthy application, my references were actually all checked by the Pittsfield police department, can you believe, I shadowed an experienced MOW deliverer a couple of times, and – I was launched.
How does this volunteer activity mesh with my internal drivers? Delivering meals to the largely homebound elderly makes me feel like a good person. It also makes me feel younger, even though a significant percentage of recipients are not as old as I am! I like telling people that I am a Meals On Wheels deliverer. It brands me as a bona fide contributory member of the Sheffield community, further embedding me as a quasi-local in this small rural town that has become a full-time home for me since 2013.
I deliver meals every Thursday to 23 +/- people who live mostly in senior/subsidized housing in Great Barrington. Deliverers get a list of recipients for each delivery day with addresses, phone numbers and specifics of what each person gets, e.g., juice instead of milk, frozen (not hot) main course, no bread, etc. It initially took me a couple of hours to deliver all the meals, but as I figured out efficiencies, I was able to cut down the time to an hour and a quarter. The list stays largely stable, with minor deletions and additions as time goes along.
Responsibilities for the deliverers include directives on what to do in certain situations. You are not, for example, supposed to leave meals and beverages by the door if the person is not home. You are supposed to check on the person, if home, to see if anything is amiss, and if yes, report the situation immediately to Elder Services. And, heaven forbid, if you find that one of your recipients had passed away, you need to call 911 and stay at the residence until the police come. Polly Mann, the Executive Director of the Senior Center in Great Barrington, told me that once, when she was covering for a deliverer that couldn’t make it at the last minute, she found one elderly woman sitting on the toilet, having passed into her heavenly rest in the midst of relieving herself– a real shocker, I could only imagine.
You get to know the people to whom you’re delivering. Some welcome a little conversation, others are transactional, and all are appreciative of your efforts on their behalf. You help bring Amazon packages in the door, open jars of food – and in return, sometimes receive a homemade muffin or a package of mints, as well as a thank-you. Linda T. had a pet mouse, Sir Winston, whom she invited me to see. He was usually in his mouse-house within his cage, sleeping, but once introduced, I felt I should bring him the occasional treat. Linda said he only liked imported cheese, so I made sure to save my rinds of Manchego for him, which she assured me he appreciated. Pet mice seem to last a maximum of two years, and since she seemed cheered by having Sir Winston, I volunteered to get her a replacement mouse from Petco when Sir Winston died. She thanked me but so far has not taken me up on my offer.
Chris J., one of the few men on my route, handed me a white envelope last Christmas, wishing me happy holidays. When I got into my car, I discovered he had given me a $20 tip. Yikes! The people on my route are on fixed incomes, and I was sure I wasn’t supposed to be accepting money. But – I knew Chris would be offended if I gave it back. It was also too small a matter to elevate to the head of Nutrition at Elder Services in Pittsfield. What to do? I circled back, thanked Chris profusely, and told him how much I enjoyed my volunteer work. Was there anything he would like as a holiday gift from me? Perhaps a nice steak to broil for a festive meal? No response. A bowl of fresh fruit? Nothing. Chris did tell me, however, that when his grandsons visited, he liked offering them chocolates as a treat. I zoomed up to the Big Y supermarket, found a box of Whitman Samplers and another of Russell Stover crème-filled chocolates, $10 each, and drove them back to Chris. He was delighted, I had effected an even exchange, and – problem solved.
Mrs. MacNamara, in her latter 90’s, used to leave the door open for me. When she was sitting in the living room, it worked well. Then, she started taking to her bed, and I was faced with hunting her down to make sure she was OK before I left. One day, I called and called – “Mrs. MacNamara, it’s Meals On Wheels!” and got no response. I tiptoed into the bedroom and there she was, unmoving, the covers pulled up to her chin. I called again, softly. Nothing. I had read in detective novels that you were supposed to hold a mirror to someone’s mouth and nose to see if the glass fogged up with breath, but I didn’t have a mirror. If I raised my voice, and if she was still alive, I might scare her to death. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I bellowed “MRS. MACNAMARA, IT’S MEALS ON WHEELS HERE!!!!” She leaped up, looking horrified, but she didn’t die of fright and was actually glad to see me, once the shock wore off.
A woman I call Our Lady of the Perpetual Tag Sale keeps tables of dishes, costume jewelry, books, clothing and kitchen items for sale outside her front door, under a tent. She runs out of her house when she sees me coming, always comments on how wonderful the lunch looks and smells, and that she’s going to sit right down and eat it. You can’t beat that kind of reception.
Israel B., a tall, slender gentlemanly nonagenarian, is the father of my chiropractor. He is a widower, a lone semite in a sea of Christians, exquisitely well cared-for by a female attendant and by his local family. He graciously, silently receives his meals and disappears into the bedroom.
Some recipients mysteriously drop off my list. Have they moved? Have they decided they don’t want Meals anymore? What happened to the couple that kept their cats in little harnesses, with a sign warning us not to let them out? I never find out. And then – because you’re dealing with an elderly and infirm population, some of your folks die – which is sad, as you’ve gotten to know and like them. Marilyn S, a sprightly 90-something and the aunt of a friend, was fine one day and gone the next. Beverly H., a beautiful, fragile woman who avidly sought conversations with me when I came, was taken to the hospital and did not return. Edith L., whose son was often at her apartment when I came, moved to assisted living because she was starting to wander.
I just read an article by Dan Harris in the Jan. 26, 2023 NY Times, “The Benefits of Wise Selfishness.” This concept is something I have – more or less – naturally embraced over the years, and it’s a good way to end this meditation on Meals On Wheels. Dan visited the Dalai Lama recently; the bottom line of this meaningful interaction is: “Truly enlightened self-interest means recognizing that acting in generous and altruistic ways makes us happier than solely being out for oneself does.” I leave you, the reader, and me, the writer, with this life-enhancing thought.