Meals on Wheels Delivers a Little Warmth & Big Results

By Freda Hawver Pachter  

The 98-year-old woman stands inside her screen door waiting for visitors at the white brick Denver home where she has lived for nearly 60 years.

Long braids give Lometa Gaskin a girlish look as a big smile spreads across her face.

Two young women from the nearby Volunteers of America Colorado branch arrive with a warm meal of chili, greens, homemade applesauce, dessert and milk. Their Meals on Wheels route is one dozens in the Denver area this day that brings a healthy meal and much more to home-bound seniors several days a week.

“It’s the highlight of my day when the girls come,” Lometa says. “They’ve always got a smile.”

She takes a moment to show off pictures of her family. Lometa lives on her own. She recently lost the last of her six sisters, who died at age 104. Her husband died many years ago and her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live far away in Texas and California. So both the visit and the food are a warm treat.

“For some of them, I think it’s the only interaction they get,” said Sara Galenbeck, who is a coordinator for VOA’s foster grandparent program and takes turns with co-workers delivering meals to seniors who live close to the VOA’s Denver headquarters.

Meals on Wheels is one of many human services programs funded in part by federal tax dollars that have come under threat since President Trump released his proposed budget last week. The president’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said programs like Meals on Wheels sound good, but don’t work.“Lometa’s always waiting at the door for us.”

In fact, Meals on Wheels has proven its worth for decades, saving taxpayers millions a year in nursing home costs by helping older Americans stay at home as they age.

The Meals on Wheels program originated in Australia in the 1950s and now serves more than 2.4 million people in the U.S. a year through more than 5,000 local programs.

The Volunteers of America (VOA) in Denver is the biggest Meals on Wheels provider in the Rocky Mountain region and the math clearly shows it’s a great Idea that Works.

“We can serve a senior in their home for an entire year for less than one day in a hospital,” said Dale Elliott, VOA Colorado’s Director of Aging and Nutrition Services.

He pulls out a calculator. Each nutritionally-balanced meal costs $7.50 to prepare and personally deliver. Recipients get about 265 meals a year, adding up to $1985 a year, far less than a one-day hospital stay or a month in a nursing home or assisted living center.

Altogether last year, VOA served 577,485 meals to needy people ages 60 and older in seven Colorado counties. Each day, VOA prepares and delivers about 2,300 meals.

“If they need help, we’re there,” Elliott said. “They really are the most vulnerable in our society.”

If Meals on Wheels programs get cut, Elliott predicts costs for both Medicare and Medicaid would rise. People over age 64 get health coverage through Medicare, while Medicaid covers long-term care for low-income seniors.

Studies of Meals on Wheels have shown that a daily visit reduces falls and keeps seniors healthier, thus reducing Medicare costs. Most older people prefer to live in their homes as long as they can; providing meals and a regular visit makes it easier for them to do that.

Ultimately members of Congress will decide whether to follow Trump’s lead and cut money from Meals on Wheels. Thus far, the blowback against Trump’s proposal has been pronounced and Elliott said he’s received calls from supporters who want to help ensure that VOA can keep Meals on Wheels running smoothly.

Back on the delivery route, Sara and her co-worker, Vanessa Gates, stop at a high-rise for low-income seniors where they make several deliveries. One woman is blind and bedridden. She is relieved when she hears the young women arrive.

“Oh good,” she says. “Can you help me with my medicine?”

She has three prescription bottles in her bed and needs help distinguishing which bottle contains which medicine. Without the visitors’ help, she might accidentally take her strong pain medicine when she’s intending to take Tylenol.

On another floor, Vanessa and Sara bring food to a developmentally disabled man.

And a few blocks away, they stop in to see another woman in a white brick home, this one with green trim.

Oliver Gantt answers the door along with his two excited pugs. Oliver takes care of his mother, Patricia Gantt, 93. Patricia has lived in her home since 1969. She’s a mother of 10 and a grandmother of 30.

Oliver, who is retired from the military, said the meals are a big help. They provide his mom with variety and good nutrition. She especially likes the chicken. Oliver has some choice words for any politicians who vote to cut a program that helps people like his mom.

“Shame on them!”

Patricia loves living at home.

“I’m not far from my church,” she said. “Every Sunday, I make it.”

Asked if she ever wants to move away from her home, Patricia adamantly shakes her head.

“Honey, I want to stay in my home until the Lord calls me.”