Deanna Steinhauer reminisces of a time before COVID-19.
She had been inspired to join Meals on Wheels locally as a volunteer during retirement. It was a service her parents relied on, after her mother fell ill and then became paralyzed after a stroke; her father took care of her mother during those times and used the Meals on Wheels program for assistance.
As a volunteer with Spectrum Community Services' Meals on Wheels program since February, Steinhauer used to deliver meals directly to seniors and form a unique connection that only comes with talking to her clients.
But now, because of social distancing, those interactions have been halted.
These days, to deliver emergency meal kits, Steinhauer slips on her gloves and puts on her mask. She remembers her relationship with a male client who had difficulty walking. As a result, she would simply walk into his home, put the meal on his table, and talk.
Their conversations were personal. They're what Steinhauer misses the most.
"I wish I could say this was the last week (that we have to social distance) because that would be so much better," she said. "But I don't think we'll go back until everybody else does. I don't really see an end in sight."
Despite the limitations, Steinhauer said she is grateful that Spectrum's Meals on Wheels is still helping seniors.
The new normal
Carrie Oldes, the program manager at Spectrum, described how COVID-19 has impacted the service. The program runs 16 rounds a day, and minimally according to Oldes, needs 16 people to help her deliver meals. However, because of a decrease in volunteers, the program has only two volunteers and scrambles to figure on who will run each route.
"The need is still there for help," she said.
No matter the challenges, though, the program still delivers hot meals to clients every day.
"Without us, for many of them, we're their only lifeline," Oldes said. "So if we don't go see them, they're not going to see another human being that day."
The absence of personal interaction has been hard for volunteers and clients. Arguably, the personal interactions between them is what is treasured the most by the program.
Nevertheless, the program, clients and volunteers alike understand that adopting social distancing is vital for everyone's safety.
"I don't know if we'll go back to where we went into their houses," Steinhauer said. "I think it will always be that we drop it off at the door. I don't know if the clients want us coming in and exposing anything to anybody."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated seniors are at the highest risk for severe illness. In fact, eight out of every 10 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been individuals 65 or older. And with the state of California hitting record highs for COVID-19 deaths, Spectrum's Meals on Wheels have taken precautions.
"It's what we have to do, and they appreciate us taking those protocols. They're older and they're nervous about being around people," Steinhauer said.
According to Alicia Morales, the division director of the Alameda County Social Services Agency Division of Aging and Adult Protection, all older adults 60 and above may qualify for food assistance. Working with the county and other services, Spectrum's Meals on Wheels program has expanded to make sure every senior in need is taken care of during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Traditionally, a Meals on Wheels client is at least 60 years old and unable to leave their home. Although, because of COVID, the service ranges out to any senior who can give the program a call.
"The COVID-19 crisis has created an unprecedented surge in food insecurity throughout the county," Morales said during a public service announcement in May. "Senior nutrition programs have seen a 100% increase in requests for meals and grocery deliveries since the shelter-in-place went into effect."
Krista Lucchesi is the program director of Mercy Brown Bag, an organization that provides groceries for Spectrum on 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 of senior clients. Seniors who have never needed the service in the past are calling on Mercy Brown Bag's assistance.
With the surge of more seniors needing meals, Morales stated that Alameda County's senior programs will serve over 1 million meals this year that align with proper senior nutrition.
"Proper nutrition is critical to promoting physical and mental well-being," she said.
Lucchesi stated that maintaining a healthy diet can prevent cognitive problems, falling, balance difficulties and muscle weakness.
"For us, when we talk about senior nutrition, it overlays with the fundamentals of any good nutrition," she said. "We want to make sure they have enough protein because protein is used for your brain, muscles, overall to keep you strong."
Keeping this in mind, Mercy Brown Bag looks for low sodium products, softer foods that accommodate dental issues and lean proteins. Even with high prices for protein products, Mercy Brown Bag is still able to purchase these items for their clients.
"We want people to have enough as possible that's vital to be strong and thrive," Lucchesi said.
Spectrum's Meals on Wheels and Mercy Brown Bag are determined to do what they can to assist the seniors of the Tri-Valley and Alameda County. Even so, Lucchesi said they can't do it alone.
She encourages residents to check in on their older family members, to see how they're doing and be a part of their communities, especially during these times, where seniors fear leaving their homes because of COVID-19.
"We feel like that community connection, especially if you're scared and staying home, is the piece that is affecting their health as well," she said. "We're doing what we can ... but it takes a village."