By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET — Driving was just one of the things Julie Amaral gave up during the pandemic, but it’s not the sacrifice that hurts most.
To stay safe, the 92-year-old cut out trips to the pharmacy, lunch with friends and many of the other activities of daily life that let her exercise her natural impulse to socialize and tell stories.
“That’s the trouble with me,” she says almost apologetically. “I can’t talk to people without telling stories.”
Thanks to one helping organization and the band of volunteers who keep it humming, Amaral has been spared total social exile as a result of COVID-19. Every weekday, the folks from Meals on Wheels have been delivering a nutritious midday plate to her front door.
As the venerable organization marks March for Meals this month to draw attention to its mission, it likes to point out that the lunches it provides pack about a third of an elderly adult’s daily nutritional needs.
But it’s so much more than food.
“Many people during the pandemic, many older adults, told us the Meals on Wheels volunteer was the only person they were seeing,” said Meghan Grady, the executive director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Amaral was surprised to see not just one person from Meals on Wheels at her doorstep, but a whole crew who decided she was a perfect example of how the organization is helping homebound seniors endure the isolation of the pandemic – a crushing emotional burden for many. Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt was on hand to present Grady with a proclamation as they delivered Amaral’s provisions, along with a municipal scarf and a few other gifts.
Among the well-wishers was Mary Lou Dolan of Oak Tree Health, a health care company with an innovative model of delivering primary care for Medicare recipients that just opened its fourth Rhode Island location on Diamond Hill Road in November.
It’s not unusual for patients to get looped into the Meals on Wheels network through Oak Tree Health, which just surpassed the 100-patient mark at the new site in Diamond Hill Plaza, said Dolan.
“If we have patients who have food insecurity then we will connect them with Meals on Wheels to make sure they’re able to ease that insecurity, get the food they need and become part of the program,” she says.
Answering the door in gloves and a sweater decorated with a shiny emerald shamrock, Amaral was overwhelmed with emotion. She couldn’t believe she was getting so much attention, but she took advantage of the unexpected opportunity to schmooze. She vanished into her apartment briefly, only to reemerge with several of the watercolors she produced before the pandemic during classes at the Gaston A. Ayotte Jr. Memorial Senior Center.
“She painted a rock for me pertaining to COVID-19 in 2020,” Baldelli-Hunt recalled.
Prior to last summer, Amaral wasn’t getting help from Meals on Wheels. She didn’t feel like she needed it, but now she calls the program “a godsend.”
“It meant a lot,” she says. “It was wonderful – they brought Meals on Wheels right to my door. Could I have asked for anything more? I couldn’t get out because of the pandemic, and I’m all alone and I’m elderly.”
Organizations colloquially known as “meals on wheels” have been popping up around the globe since World War II, but the American version traces its roots to the era of former President Richard M. Nixon. He’s credited with signing into law a 1965 amendment to the Older Americans Act that established a national nutrition program for people over 60 on March 22, 1972.
As people grow older and more frail, it’s not uncommon for them to face challenges with nutrition and social isolation. The pandemic only heightened the need for intervention, according to Grady.
Thanks to two federal relief bills, Meals on Wheels was able to ramp up its response as the organization leveraged funding from the Family First Coronavirus Response Act and, later, the CARES Act.
The organization’s client base more than tripled during the pandemic, and Amaral is one of thousands of people who have been added to the program during the reign of COVID-19.
“During the pandemic, we surged from 1,200 home-delivered meals a day to 1,400 home-delivered meals a day,” said Grady.
In Woonsocket alone, volunteers have been distributing about 200 meals a day five days a week. Sometimes volunteers drop off the meals to the city from the organization’s Bath Street headquarters in Providence, and other times city-based help will pick them up and bring them back for distribution, said Grady, who praised the efforts of Baldelli-Hunt and Human Services Director Linda Plays for keeping the program running smoothly.
Serving as a nutrition safety net for the elderly is a core component of the agency’s mission, but Grady said the personal connection the volunteers make with people like Amaral can be just as important.
Volunteers dropping off food use the opportunity to conduct a cursory “safety check” of the people they visit, taking note of any changes in their health or other signs of trouble that might need attention from another agency.
“They knew that Julie was in need, being homebound due to COVID-19, and we made sure she not only got the meals but a safety check and an opportunity for socialization,” said Grady.
As for Amaral, she can’t wait for the day when she can resume her old routines of making trips to CVS, the supermarket and meeting friends the way she used to before COVID-19 changed everything.
“Getting out, going shopping – the little things you enjoyed doing when it was normal,” she says. “I miss it.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo