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Meals on Wheels seeking younger, less at-risk people to deliver food to seniors

WBFO file photo
Meals on Wheels volunteers Joan Denecki and Evelyn Derry look over their delivery chart in December in South Buffalo. Meals on Wheels is now asking younger, less at-risk people to volunteer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meals on Wheels for Western New York wants to deliver to even more older adults to keep them home and safe due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 


There’s just one problem.


Many Meals on Wheels delivery volunteers are older adults themselves, meaning they may be just as likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 as the seniors they’re trying to protect. 


Now the nonprofit and its parent organization, FeedMore Western New York, is pleading for younger, less-at risk individuals to help make deliveries. 


“We are calling on younger volunteers, including all the college students that may be off right now or taking classes from home, to lend some hours with us and help us out,” said FeedMore Communications Director Catherine Shick. “Whether it's via social media or asking our partner organizations to spread the word, possibly reaching out to colleges and universities, we will be doing that. Anywhere we can get those younger, healthy bodies in.”


Meals on Wheels for Western New York, which delivers to about 3,400 homebound older adults, had hoped to take on as many as 2,000 additional senior clients.


That’s how many seniors had been dining at places like senior centers and churches as part of Erie County’s congregate dining program before it was suspended last week due to the pandemic. As of Friday, Meals on Wheels for Western New York had already taken on 289 seniors who previously did congregate dining.


However, now Meals on Wheels is seeing volunteers drop off. While unable to give a specific number, Shick said many of their 1,700 volunteers have temporarily stopped volunteering due to their own health risks. 


The average Meals on Wheels volunteer nationwide is 62. People 60 and older are at a greater risk to have serious complications from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


“We completely respect everyone's decision. Everyone needs to do what is best for them and their health,” Shick said. 


Although younger people appear less likely to become seriously ill and die from COVID-19, they can carry and spread the virus just as much as older people. That's why Meals on Wheels is also taking new safety measures to cut down on contact between volunteers and seniors.


“That may mean calling the client ahead of time letting them know that you're on the way or in the driveway, and asking them to unlock the door, get ready a flat surface or point them in the direction of a flat surface that they could put the meals on,” Shick said. “And then of course, saying hello, but from a distance.”


Although COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting older adults, the situation and what experts know is fast evolving. U.S. officials announced over the weekend they’re investigating reports that a higher percentage of younger Americans than expected are being hospitalized due to COVID-19. About 40 percent of Americans hospitalized for the virus are between the age of 20 to 54, according to the CDC.


Still, about 80 percent of American deaths from COVID-19 have been those 65 and older, particularly those over 85.


“We want to make sure that no one is coming to us if they're feeling ill or if they feel like they're an at-risk population,” Shick said. “We completely understand that.”


She added Meals on Wheels has already had about 250 new people offer to volunteer last week amid the crisis. They’re currently being placed or are in the process of being placed on delivery routes.


However, she noted they still need more.


“That truly is the light in all of this darkness is to see the compassion of our community members during this time,” Shick said, “but we are reaching out additionally, we still need more support — we definitely need more support.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.