The Kenai and Soldotna senior centers are putting the pedal to metal for their Meals on Wheels programs. Both have at least doubled their home-delivered meals to residents, while centers remain closed to in-person meals and gatherings.
The centers are also using calls and wellness checks to get in touch with local seniors. Neither center has set a date for reopening yet.
The Kenai center usually has two drivers who deliver meals to homes and they’ve added a third, part-time driver who was previously helping transport seniors to the center, said Kenai Senior Center Director Kathy Romain. Another full-time staffer is delivering to Kasilof one day a week.
They’re delivering 100 meals a day — double what they usually average.
“We’re delivering to our previous home-delivered meal clients, but then there’s folks who can’t get to the store or who have maybe been referred by a neighbor or somebody was bringing them meals personally,” Romain said. “And we have referrals come in every day. So we are delivering right now Monday through Thursday. With, on Thursday, we’re also delivering meals for the weekend if they’re needed for individuals.”
The Kenai Senior Center received a Subaru from Meals on Wheels America three years ago that it’s using to make deliveries.
The Soldotna Senior Center has been delivering about 60 meals a day, said John Walker, the director of the Soldotna Senior Center. Both centers also offer drive-up, take-out services.
“The cost definitely went up with all the meal delivery trays and single-service items,” Walker said. “Thankfully, food costs, themselves, have remained relatively stable through all of this.
Vehicle fuel is an additional expense. Luckily, Walker said, the center was in good financial health, so it hasn’t had to dip into its cash reserves, which it is saving to build a senior housing development in the future.
Both centers have had to cancel in-person fundraisers, which were important sources of revenue for Meals on Wheels programs. Now, they’re funding their meal delivery programs with federal grants and donations. Both also have suggested donations for patrons — though they will never turn seniors away if they cannot pay.
It’s been doubly important to keep Meals on Wheels going during the pandemic because this time has been so lonely for so many seniors, said Romain.
“I think it’s often said that a meals driver, for some individuals, that meals driver will be the only person that they’ll see throughout the course of their day,” she said.
Walker said one home-delivered meal recipient told him that seeing the driver every day has been a lifeline for her these last few months.
The Kenai Senior Center is offering an additional way for seniors to socialize, which they’re calling Phone Buddies.
“We have volunteers who are calling every day to check on certain people, make a phone call once a week, just to let them know that someone’s out there,” Romain said.
Velda Geller is a phone buddy and president of Kenai Senior Connections, the fundraising board for the senior center. She said the senior center is like a second family.
For Geller, making calls as a phone buddy is mutually beneficial.
“I have two different people I try to call at least once a week and check on and have a little chit-chat time, and I’ve enjoyed that a lot,” she said.
Even when the centers open back up, people should expect changes. Walker said it’s been painful to remind seniors that they won’t be returning to the same center they left in March.
“And that’s really what I hate about halfway reopening, is we can’t give ’em what they’re wanting and what they’re needing, and what they’re missing is that true socialization,” he said. “That hurts me, ’cause I love every one of ’em to death, and that’s really driven my caution over these six months.”
The Kenai Senior Center is undergoing construction to make it more social distance-friendly, using a grant from the borough to install plexiglass in the computer lab and open up a hallway in a recreational space, among other changes.