Volunteer to Help a Caregiver

Volunteers dreamstime_m_17430748 (2)To kick off National Volunteer Week, read my article for Huff Post 50 on 8 Ways You Can Volunteer to Help Caregivers.

Want to Spread Holiday Cheer? Help Deliver a Little ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ to a Hungry Senior

The following was exclusively written for PBS/Next Avenue

It was a low point for Jenny Montalbano back in 1996.  She was divorcing her husband and feeling all alone.  She knew she had to get out of the house and do something to keep her mind and hands occupied.  She found her solace in the preparation kitchen of God’s Love We Deliver (GLWD), a nonprofit meal delivery volunteer organization servicing greater New York City and parts of New Jersey founded in 1985.

“I was volunteering my time in the SOHO food kitchen and even though I was helping them, God’s Love We Deliver really helped me through a very tough time – it became my emotional rescue,” says Montalbano.  Having grown up in a traditional Italian American family, Montalbano shares, “I grew up in a household where food was comfort so helping to give meals back to others has become my passion these last 16 years.”

According to the Meals on Wheels Association of America (MOWAA), more than 5-6 million seniors over age 60 go hungry every day.  Many are homebound, unable to grocery shop or prepare meals for themselves because of things such as painful arthritis, macular degeneration or lack of energy to cook if they are battling a devastating disease such as cancer or COPD.  MOWAA, the national arm of a vast network of 5,000 local community agencies, delivers one million meals daily all through the efforts of its nationwide volunteer network.

For many family caregivers, especially the 7-8 million who live long-distance from their loved one, having a nutritious, fresh meal delivered to a loved one is a gift that is truly comfort for all.  Some organizations, such as Feeding America, or the many local food banks that feed the hungry and homeless, require the recipient be able to come get their meal or prepare their meal.  But many seniors are homebound and struggle with cooking so the prepared meal delivered daily becomes a life-saving solution.

“We usually talk about senior hunger issues during hard economic times and then the story is over, but the fact of the matter is hunger is not dependent on economic times any more than it is dependent on the weather,” says Enid Borden, ceo and president of the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.  She also says while poverty is a predictor for senior hunger, this issue is becoming more of a middle class issue.  Statistics show 50 percent of those older Americans going hungry are above the national poverty level.  In fact, a MOWAA report found 1 in 9 seniors are “food insecure” and the most at-risk are baby boomers age 60-64.

Part of the issue according to Borden is many of these hungry seniors are homebound so we don’t see them in the course of our daily life the way we might see news reports of food kitchens. “Seniors who face the threat of hunger are really the hidden hungry – hidden from society in terms of their inability to be outside in our communities but also because many seniors perceive a stigma with this issue and they don’t talk about it.”

Home Alone

In addition to the stigma and health risks, another issue associated with senior hunger can be isolation.   The MOWAA report found single seniors are most at risk for food insecurity.

One of the biggest concerns caregivers may have about their older loved one is isolation, particularly those loved ones living alone at home because they recently lost a spouse or partner.  When an older person does not have someone to talk to, does not attend church or synagogue or is not seeing family and friends regularly, this can lead to isolation and ultimately depression and other health issues such as not eating. Seeing a daily volunteer who delivers meals and checks in on seniors can have a tremendous positive impact.

“Many people don’t realize that sometimes the meal delivery driver is the only social visit a senior may receive during the day,” says Em Findley, communications coordinator for God’s Love We Deliver (GLWD).  “That is why we take great pride in not only delivering nutritious, delicious meals but also bringing a smiling face to the door to brighten a senior’s day.”

Caroline Sorensen, a high school senior in New York who volunteers with Meals on Wheels, recently told me, “I love knowing I made someone’s day easier and happier.” She has been a teen volunteer for Meals on Wheels through her school for four years and she has a favorite older delivery recipient.  “Doris always comments on my hair, it is long and silky and we talk about the latest in hair fashion,” says Caroline.  “She laughs that her hair is not quite that pretty anymore – but instead of making her sad it’s a fun conversation we have every time I see her.  And, she always wants to make me tea so we sit for a few minutes and talk – I always feel good after I leave her.”

When disasters occur, such as Hurricane Sandy which devastated New Jersey and New York’s five boroughs especially Staten Island, Queens and the Jersey Shore this October, meal delivery services struggle to maintain the sustenance their clients need.

“We lost power for one week after Sandy hit,” says Findley of GLWD.  “However, due to the herculean efforts of our volunteers, we created 2,300 ‘Sandy bags’ of perishable food and got them to local Red Cross shelters and local churches to continue to help and we were still able to get 8,000 meals donated and delivered.”

Soul Food

“Food is both love and medicine,” says GLWD’s Findley.  Since drivers often spend a few minutes talking to the meal recipient, they bring both food and friendship to lonely seniors.  “One client told our driver, ‘I can feel the love in every bite.’”

Kitchen of God's Love We Deliver (Christian Gattan)

Kitchen of God’s Love We Deliver (Christian Gattan)

What makes GLWD unique is each of the 20,000 meals they deliver every week is customized for clients, there is no wait list and no age requirement (to qualify for Meals on Wheels you must be age 60 or over or live in senior housing).  In fact, 78 percent of their clients are age 50+ and many live in Manhattan where volunteers deliver meals on foot.  They have nutritional counselors who talk to clients about special needs and personalize each meal whether it’s kosher meals, diabetic meals, gluten-free meals or even pureeing meals for those clients who have trouble chewing.  As with MOWAA, meals can also be delivered for the family caregiver.

“We know sometimes the caregiver is at much at risk for hunger or poor nutrition as the senior,” says GLWD’s Findley.  “Caregivers are often struggling with financial issues, physical caregiving and other challenges – if we can provide the meals to keep both caregiver and care recipient nourished that is part of our mission.”  Findley reports over the last two years GLWD has seen a 40 percent increase in requests for meals for the family caregiver of those clients over age 65.

In addition, meal delivery may be the answer in helping caregivers keep an older loved one living in the home they love instead of contemplating nursing home living. A recent report from Brown University researchers found the states who subsidized meal delivery costs through the Older Americans Act have a correlation to a reduction in the percentage of relatively healthy seniors in nursing homes.  Published in Health Services Research, researchers found for instance,  “in Washington state, which spends just $8 on subsidized meals for every senior state resident, nearly 17 percent of the nursing home population is made up of those with minimal health needs,” meaning they may need low-care and not the full suite of services nursing homes provide.

Jenny Montalbano and her mom

Jenny Montalbano and her mom

A few years ago, Montalbano’s mom developed stage 4 cancer.  Montalbano had just started a new full-time job so she turned to GLWD to help deliver meals for her mom for the last month of her life so Montalbano could keep her at home.

“I’ve been on both sides – as giving and receiving – of the special gifts God’s Love We Deliver provides,” says Montalbano.  “Nothing lifts your spirit more than to volunteer to feed a senior.  As a caregiver, I’ll always cherish that my mom saw a friendly driver who came to the door every day to bring her a meal and a smile.  I tell people God’s Love We Deliver was a God-send. They fed my mom physically but they fed both of us emotionally.”

How You Can Help This Holiday Season – Eat, Pray, Love

In her best-selling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert discovers one of the best gifts in life is giving to someone else in need. If you want to deliver a little soul food this holiday season, here are ways you can volunteer to spread the holiday spirit:

God’s Love We Deliver  – looking for volunteers for Christmas Eve and day to help with deliveries in New York’s five boroughs and neighboring New Jersey

Meals on Wheels Association of America – find a local chapter through this national site or donate – $7 feeds a hungry senior for the day

Check with your local faith-based organization and visit the National Volunteer Caregiving Network to find a local meal delivery program through faith-based groups in your area – volunteer drivers are often needed

Donate $1 to the National Council on Aging (NCOA) hungry senior campaign and NCOA will connect a vulnerable older adult to $40 annual benefits to help pay for food

Help! I Need Somebody

It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Almost 50 years ago, the Beatles hit Number One on the Billboard charts with the song Help! – a perfect anthem for this week.   On April 15-21, we officially commemorate National Volunteer Week, and I am giving a “shout out” to those 65 million family caregivers nationwide who essentially have volunteered to care for a loved one who is sick, getting older or has a disability.

However, this is a time for us all to think about volunteering.  In honor of our nation’s caregivers, what can you do to help them?  Read on about the ways you can volunteer to help a caregiving friend, volunteer for caregiving organizations and why caregivers are more likely than the general population to become a volunteer when their caregiving tour of duty has ended.

Help the Caregiver in Your Life

It might be your mom, your brother, a sister-in-law, a co-worker, a neighbor or good friend but more than likely if you start asking those within your circle of family and friends – you will find a family caregiver.  Two important things to know about caregivers:

  1. They often feel stressed, overwhelmed and suffer from burn-out from their caregiving duties which can ultimately impact their own health and well-being.
  2. They often feel alone in their caregiving journey which can lead to depression.

Here is what you can do to help:

Create a Community of Care – there are a few online sites where can you create private communities around the caregiver.  One of my favorites is Lotsa Helping Hands.  This free service allows you to send emails out to the caregiver’s inner circle asking them to sign up to be volunteers. There is a sophisticated calendar tool where you list tasks for things to help the caregiver.  It might be picking up the caregiver’s kids at school because she is at the doctor’s office with her mom, or dropping off a meal for her family because she is at the nursing home that night visiting her loved one or sitting with her dad so she can get her hair done or go to the gym.  What I like is the focus is on helping the caregiver.  By giving that caregiver a “break,” also known as respite, this type of volunteering is a personal gift that every caregiver needs.

Volunteer for a Caregiving Organization

There are numerous organizations which offer an opportunity to get involved in helping caregivers in your local community.  Whether it is home meal delivery, transportation needs, raising funds through a walk-a-thon – these are just a few things you can sign up for which support the caregivers where you live.

Here are some Web sites to check out in the various areas of caregiver support:

Home meal deliveries:  More than eight million caregivers live long distance from their loved one and cannot be there every day to ensure they eat properly or at all.  Meals on Wheels has more than 2.5 million volunteers who pack and deliver 1 million meals every day to those who are homebound – many of them over the age of 60.  Their latest campaign is for Mother’s Day – volunteer to deliver a meal, donate $7 for a meal for a mom, or send a greeting card from their Web site.  Meals on Wheels is about more than food – read my blog on Soul Food.

Transportation and Senior Driving Safety: Getting around is another way to help caregivers and their loved ones.  Check these sites for becoming a volunteer driver:  National Center for Senior Transportation, CarFit,  ITNAmerica

Faith-based organizations: Many local churches, synagogues and mosques offer support groups and other ways to help caregivers.  An inter-faith non-profit organization which has a plethora of volunteering opportunities is National Volunteer Caregiving Network (formerly known as Faith in Action Network).  Typical services include transportation, grocery shopping, minor home repairs, friendly visiting, bill paying, light housekeeping and respite for the caregiver.

Hospice care:  When facing end-of-life situations, there is an amazing network of volunteers for hospice support.  More than 460,000 Americans volunteer every year to bring comfort and peace to grieving families – and, 20 percent of these volunteers are new to hospice care.  Hospice volunteers find it personal gratifying and emotionally fulfilling to help families through what they call this “living” rather than “dying” experience.  In fact, to de-institutionalize hospice care, facilities who receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement must have 5 percent of the hours of care provided be performed by volunteers.

Former Caregivers As Volunteers

You would think once a caregiver has been through their journey of caring for a loved one, they are ready to relax and take a long break.  Not so according to a study published in the Journal of Gerontology that found that older adult caregivers were more likely to be volunteers than non-caregivers.

The study found that caregivers become “embedded in networks” once they become a caregiver, thus making them more likely to continue to seek these social interactions with like minds.  They also have a routine of performing tasks for others – something they do not abandon even after caregiving ends.  Thus, caregivers are more likely to become involved in social networking and organizational memberships.  And, they may become very passionate about a cause which affected their loved one – great high profile examples are David Hyde Pierce who is a tireless advocate for finding a cure to the Alzheimer’s disease that affected his father and grandfather, and Holly Robinson Peete who created the HollyRod Foundation to support families facing Parkinson’s disease and autism which affected her father and son respectively.

Also, older adults find volunteering an integral part of their desire to give back to society (a strong trait that ties us Baby Boomers together). Thus, caregivers uniquely combine their “obligatory” activity (caregiving) with later “discretionary activities” (volunteering).

One way for former caregivers to get involved in their communities by helping other caregivers is through the National Family Caregivers Association Caregiver Community Action Network (CCANers).  This caregiving “mentor/volunteers” network helps to spread the word about caregiving through interaction with private and public agencies especially during November’s National Family Caregiving Month.

Make a plan to “up your cultural capital” and care for the caregivers.  Get up and out and volunteer to support caregivers this week (and every week).


Soul Food: More than Meal Delivery for Seniors, Caregivers, Volunteers

March is National Nutrition Month, and while it is important for all of us to check on how well we are balancing our diet, it is even more important to know that more than six million Americans over age 60 suffer from malnutrition and hunger according to the Meals on Wheels Association of America (MOWAA).  In fact, there has been a 79 percent increase in hunger among people age 50 plus over the last 10 years according to an AARP Foundation report.

As a caregiver for an older loved one, good nutrition can often get overlooked among so many other worries such as health ailments, prescriptions, paying hospital or insurance bills and other activities.  If your older loved one is struggling with food costs on a fixed income, good nutrition is often the first thing to go.  Several studies show that seniors are often choosing between a hot meal or paying utilities or health care costs.

Meals on Wheels president and CEO, Enid Borden, calls these older Americans “the hidden hungry.”  She says, “They are literally hidden from society and because we do not see them at food banks – they are behind closed doors because of mobility issues – a nutritiously delivered meal, not just food, can mean the difference between life and death.”

The MOWAA is comprised of 5,000 local groups who deliver nutritious meals across the country – even in the hard to reach rural areas.  “We deliver one million meals every day through the efforts of our 2.5 million volunteers,” says Borden.  However, Meals on Wheels delivers much more than just a nutritious meal.

Feeding Three Souls:  Seniors, Caregivers and Volunteers

Beyond the benefits to your older loved one of a home-delivered, nutritious meal, services such as Meals on Wheels bring socialization as well.  One of the biggest concerns caregivers may have about their older loved one is isolation, particularly those loved ones living alone at home because they recently lost a spouse or partner.  When an older person does not have someone to talk to, does not attend church or synagogue or is  not seeing friends regularly, this can lead to isolation and ultimately depression and other health issues.

Seeing a young volunteer regularly who delivers meals and checks in on seniors can have positive impact for both generations.  The senior gets to look forward to a visit.  The young volunteer gains newfound respect for the vulnerabilities of aging and feels uplifted in the gifts they bring.  Ultimately, you, the caregiver, gain peace of mind not only that your loved one has a regular nutritious meal but also that they are having interaction and conversation to keep their spirits up.  This is particularly important for the 7-8 million caregivers who may live long-distance from their loved one – sometimes hours or even a plane ride away.

Caroline Sorensen, a high school junior in New York who volunteers with Meals on Wheels, recently told me that “I love knowing that I made someone’s day easier and happier.” She has been a teen volunteer for Meals on Wheels through her school for three years and she has a favorite delivery recipient.  “Doris always comments on my hair, it is long and silky and we talk about the latest in hair fashion,” says Caroline.  “She laughs that her hair is not quite that pretty anymore – but instead of making her sad it’s a fun conversation we have every time I see her.  And, she always wants to make me tea so we sit for a few minutes and talk – I always feel good after I leave her.”

Borden believes that meal delivery is nourishment for the soul – for the recipient and the volunteer.  And, caregivers benefit from the peace of mind that their loved one has food and friendship.

Special Delivery

While you have to qualify for Meals on Wheels services (typically those over age 60 who are homebound), there are shipped meal delivery services that can also help caregivers of anyone who is having trouble making their own meals or getting to the grocery store.  The good news is that there is a variety of meal delivery services – both free and paid – that caregivers can use to ensure their loved one is getting the proper nutrition and eating healthy for their age.

Free or government subsidized options:

Meals on Wheels Association of America – check here to see if you quality and for local delivery services

BenefitsCheckUp® – this service offered by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) will let you see if your loved one qualifies for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help pay for nutritious food.

Eldercare Locatoroperated by the U.S. Administration on Aging – this site will help you find local resources for meal delivery in your loved one’s city (1-800-677-1116)

Paid delivery services

Mom’s Meals – this family-owned business delivers great tasting, high quality, fresh and nutritious meals throughout the United States.   Everything is shipped fresh in a patent pending package and you can specify food for diabetics, gluten-free, vegetarian, low carb or hearty healthy meals.  Average cost per meal is $5.99 plus shipping and handling.  Mom’s Meals is dedicated to the senior nutrition and meal delivery market and currently works with numerous Area Agencies on Aging and providers across the United States as an approved home delivered meal provider (you can use a Medicaid waiver for this service).

Dinewise – gourmet food meals ordered online.  The home-delivered frozen meals are offered as part of a package where you choose several meals at the same time with average meal cost between $13 – $17 plus shipping and handling.  Customers can order for their older loved one and for themselves or for entire family meals.

Sign Me Up!

Caregivers can get help with meal delivery – whether from an organization like Meals on Wheels or from your own circle of friends.  If you want to find volunteer help or you want to volunteer, here are three great ways to get involved:

  1.  Meals on Wheels – with so many seniors suffering from hunger, there are few causes that are better for needed donations and volunteers.  And, it is a great way to teach your children about aging in America – with 78 million Baby Boomers getting older every day – we will have more parents to care for than children over the next 20 years and the burden will fall to our younger generations.  Think about the cost of eating out for one lunch – donate that amount to MOWAA instead.
  2. Lotsa Helping Hands – create a private, online community and invite friends, family and others to volunteer to help.  You put information into a simple calendar on when you need meals to be delivered with any dietary details and people in your community sign up to help you, the caregiver.  It can be a meal for your family while you visit mom in a nursing home or a home-delivered meal for dad while you are at work and juggling all your other responsibilities.
  3. Drive to End Hunger – an initiative by the AARP Foundation to address hunger among America’s seniors.  To date, more than 5.8 million meals have been delivered and $14.9 million raised for Feeding America food banks around the country due to this effort.

Do you know your older loved one’s nutritional needs and issues?  Check our Me Time Monday tip on Senior Nutrition and learn more about the nutritional needs for your loved one and for you at these online resources:
www.nutrition.gov — learn more about healthy eating, food shopping, assistance programs, and nutrition-related health subjects
www.healthfinder.gov — learn how to follow a healthier lifestyle
www.choosemyplate.gov — USDA Food Guide
www.foodsafety.gov — learn more about how to cook and eat safely

Bon Appetit!