LEWISTON — Problems with her lungs and legs make it impossible for Marion Gallant, 74, to stand in front of the stove and cook meals for herself and her husband Aubin, 78.
Tethered to an oxygen tank and needing a walker to move around, Marion said the meals she and Aubin receive three times a week from the SeniorsPlus' Meals on Wheels program make a difference in their lives.
"I have days where I just can't do it," Marion said of cooking.
The Gallants are not at risk of losing their meals, but a proposed $20,000 cut in Meals on Wheels programs means other homebound elderly folks could lose out or face long waits. Some already are.
SeniorsPlus, which delivers between 500 and 600 meals five days a week in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, has 120 people on a waiting list, said Jayne LaPointe, who manages the agency's volunteer drivers.
That list will grow longer before it grows shorter, said Connie Jones, director of Community Services for SeniorsPlus in Lewiston.
Those especially at risk from the cuts in Gov. Paul LePage's recent curtailment order and supplemental budget for the end of this fiscal year are people who benefit from a special program of the United Way of Androscoggin Valley, Jones said. That program fully covers the cost of a four-week, one-meal-a-day program that's meant for people who are discharged from hospitals or nursing homes but are not well enough to cook.
In the past, if people on that program needed more than four weeks, they would be rolled into the regular Meals on Wheels program, Jones said. But now, when their four weeks are up they will go to the bottom of the waiting list.
Jones said providing a nutritious meal is only one of the program's three parts. The home visit by a volunteer or staff member also provides a safety check and socialization.
"For so many of these people, our Meals on Wheels volunteer is the only person they see, from one week's end to the next," Jones said. "And for a lot of people, this is the only meal they get all day."
The program is meant for elderly people who are homebound and do not have anybody nearby who can help prepare meals for them. It is largely funded by the federal government, but the additional funds the state has kicked in has kept waiting lists shorter.
"To me, this is the simplest thing to do, to help somebody stay at home, and if we can't do this as a state, it's sad," Jones said.
Marion Gallant said she would eat before she went on the program but she didn't have the stamina or desire to get fancy with her meals. "I would make something," she said. "It wouldn't taste very good, but I would eat it."
She said the food the couple receives not only tastes good, but the nutrition in it may be extending her husband's life.
"He was in hospice and got out," she said. "He got mad and got out, but since he's been eating more vegetables, his doctor says he's doing better than ever. That's our main meal; otherwise, we might have a sandwich or something."
Her health care providers worry about Marion cooking while on oxygen and about the disability of her legs causing her to topple onto a hot stove.
The proposed cut, if not restored by the Legislature, means the Meals on Wheels programs statewide would deliver 3,600 fewer meals this year, said Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
Maurer and her colleagues from around the state were at the State House in Augusta on Thursday to raise awareness of a whole slate of proposed budget cuts they believe would be detrimental to the elderly.
Delivering meals to homebound seniors is usually far less expensive and better for the elderly than having to place them in either assisted living centers or nursing homes, Maurer said.
"What happens is those very same people who really need to receive a meal and would qualify to receive one have to be put on a waiting list and that's true for all meals programs around the state," Maurer said.
"There's not much people can do, if they cannot prepare their own meals, which is a prerequisite for the program," she said. "They have to figure out how to either purchase frozen meals or get somebody else to make their meals for them. Unfortunately, what we find more often is some people just go hungry. If they can't get out and they can't get somebody to bring them food, they go hungry."
Some clients, or "consumers" as they are called, pay what they can for their meals, Maurer said. But those on the program are usually not wealthy.
Peter Jolicoeur, a worker at SeniorsPlus in Lewiston, said donations to the organization are important. Donors give their time and use their vehicles to move the food to people.
Jolicoeur, who delivered meals to the Gallants on Thursday, said he got involved with the program before he retired and then volunteered for three years in Lewiston before taking on the part-time staff job.
The relationships between those receiving food and those delivering it are personal, he said. "The drivers get to know the people and sometimes you get really close to them and sometimes you don't. But they do rely on us and know what days we are coming and look forward to it."
Aubin Gallant said that without the meals, he and Marion, who have been married for 57 years, likely would be split up and placed in separate nursing homes.
"We wouldn't be here," he said.