, Salem, MA

January 9, 2014

More than just a meal

Program's drivers brave ice, snow, bitter cold to feed elderly

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — PEABODY — It’s the mailman who supposedly can’t be stopped by snow, rain, sleet or gloom of night. But Ken Webster, who delivers Meals on Wheels to seniors in Peabody, thinks some other people belong in that category.

At age 70, and facing freezing weather, snowstorms, ice patches, and uncleared walks and driveways, he straps on his boots for a mission he and his colleagues take very seriously.

“We’ll traipse over the snow. We’ve taken falls,” he says. “But it’s one of those things. It’s like the mail — it’s got to get through.”

In Peabody alone that means delivering nearly 300 meals a day prepared at Peter Torigian Community Life Center. Other local communities do the same. Beverly, for example, sends out 250 meals a day. Drivers often earn a modest stipend, but finding people willing to do the work is a constant problem.

Former Peabody Mayor Mike Bonfanti, a regular observer at the Torigian Center, thinks the operation by Council on Aging Director Carolyn Wynn and coordinator Sandra Cloutman is “top shelf.” And the work couldn’t be more important, he adds, in the midst of what has already been a bitter winter.

“They go out in rough weather,” Wynn says of the approximately 10 drivers who work in Peabody. “We purchased these grippers for them (slip-on footwear).”

In the course of a year, the Peabody program dispenses more than 100,000 meals. Prior to the most recent storm, drivers carried multiple meals, hot and cold, for each client, so no one would go hungry if the weather forced a shutdown.

Webster, who retired as a vice president of the Marriot Corporation 10 years ago, has been part of the program, working five days a week, ever since. The importance of this task transcends food delivery, he explains. “Sometimes, we’re the only ones these people see all day. We end up talking to them.”

Even if it’s just a brief conversation, that’s often a moment their housebound clients look forward to, Wynn says. In extreme weather, Meals on Wheels also acts as an informal well-being check.

“I’ve called 911 on occasion,” Webster says. “I found a man lying on the floor once. It’s a shame. A lot of families have just forgotten about these people. ... If someone’s not home, we make calls right away.”

Christine Phillips, another driver, gets to know her clients. As she approaches a door at a senior apartment complex near Peabody Square, a resident passes by in the hall and warns her, “He’s not in a good mood.”

“He never is,” Phillips laughs as she knocks. She deals with people who come to the door barely dressed, some who have been injured and can’t get up, and one she describes as a “hold your nose” due to hygiene issues. Nevertheless, sometimes she simply knocks, opens the door and walks right in.

When she visits with Barbara Klayman, she gets a warm greeting at the door.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Klayman says. “It’s for people who don’t have the money. It helps them. They can pay a few bills.”

“I look at some of the volunteers who are out there, and I admire them very much, Beverly COA director MaryAnn Holack says.

Making it easier for the drivers in winter weather, however, is a problem not easily solved. The unshoveled walk or driveway is a hazard for a staff that is often nearly as old as the people they serve.

“Weather has certainly had a big impact,” says Linnea Hagberg, the nutritionist for the Massachusetts Senior Nutrition Program, which serves Beverly, Ipswich, Hamilton, Wenham and Topsfield. “But we get the meals out. Our drivers are terrific.”

Often, they leave to make deliveries before anyone has been out shoveling, she adds. Their vehicles are being turned off and on, doors opening and closing. As a result, they rarely get very warm in cold weather.

Another concern is when drivers find a home where snow or other weather has made it difficult for an elderly resident to get out, Hagberg says. Not only is it difficult for the Meals on Wheels driver to deliver food, but the person inside might be unable to get out and keep a doctor’s appointment.

Some communities have no protocol for dealing with such a situation. Marblehead, however, has a Council on Aging program in which seniors are linked with middle-schoolers willing to earn some money by shoveling.

“One would hope the neighbors would pitch in,” adds Peabody City Councilor Dave Gravel. “I’ve gotten out my snowblower and helped when neighbors couldn’t do it themselves. You would hope there would be some good neighbors out there.”

“It’s tough if the kids don’t live in your neighborhood. ... Snow shoveling is such a neighborhood activity,” says Holack.

And, like Meals on Wheels, it’s an activity that can only happen when people are willing to pitch in and help.