FARMINGTON — For housebound seniors who are not able to cook, Meals on Wheels — quite literally — keeps them alive.

The program, offered locally through SeniorsPlus, provides a nutritious meal, companionship and a watchful eye over seniors who are homebound or recuperating from medical conditions. With recent federal cuts to the program, the waiting list for help is growing across Maine.

Jayne LaPointe, Meals on Wheels team leader for Franklin, Androscoggin and Oxford counties, spends most of her time at the Livermore distribution center on Route 4. “There are a lot of sad situations out there,” she said.

Maine ranks highest in New England and 11th nationally in senior food insecurity, which is defined as not having access to a reliable source of adequate food. 

More than 100 people are on a waiting list for the service in the tri-county area, and some have been waiting for months.

One couple in Oxford County is really struggling, LePointe said, because the husband had surgery for an aneurysm and his wife can’t do the cooking. Many in their town have been helping, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. “It pulls at your heartstrings when you know you can’t help,” LaPointe said.

Often, support is only needed for a short time. Meals provided over a two- to three-week period may prevent return visits to a hospital while a senior recuperates. Even so, the waiting list grows every day, LaPointe said, and many seniors are embarrassed to tell their families they need help.

According to a SeniorsPlus assessment of Meals on Wheels recipients, 75 percent scored at “high nutritional risk.” Of those surveyed, 12 percent indicated, “I don’t always have enough money to buy the food I need.”

A large part of funding for meal deliveries comes from the Nutrition Services Incentive Program under the federal Older Americans Act. In Franklin County, the county budget provides funding for SeniorsPlus to prepare and serve the meals and, in Androscoggin and Oxford counties, townspeople approve funding at annual town meetings.

For example, Franklin County last year approved $34,000 for SeniorsPlus, an amount SeniorsPlus has asked for again.

Funding requests have taken on additional importance this year, according to Meals on Wheels, because federal funding was cut by $18,000 in Maine. That’s the equivalent of 3,500 meals.

It’s not always just about the meals, LaPointe said. Drivers have arrived at a client’s home to find the client has fallen or needs medical attention. “That set of eyes is important,” she said. “Sometimes the driver is the only person seen that day.” 

In addition, each driver selects a senior with whom to spend some time. The socialization is important, but the driver has to remember that others are waiting for their meals. “Sometimes there is little or nothing in the refrigerator or freezer when the driver puts the meals away,” LaPointe said.

Frequency of meal delivery depends on where a client lives. Those farthest from the preparation and distribution centers receive meals once a week. Others receive meals three times each week.

There are 14 meal delivery routes in the tri-county area, and drivers log 75,000 to 80,000 miles delivering meals each year.

All of the meals are prepared in Lewiston, and may be either cold or warm when delivered. Meals to be eaten later are packaged in trays safe for microwave or toaster oven use, and are flash frozen. Each meal contains an entree, vegetables and fruit. Dessert, bread and milk also are provided. 

Temperature control is very important, with small freezer packs and rubber hot plates keeping meals at the proper temperatures during delivery.

Assessment Coordinator Anna Given is responsible for visiting potential clients to determine whether they are eligible for meal delivery. There are no income guidelines to qualify, but clients must be homebound or isolated and unable to prepare meals.

Given checks back with meal recipients every six months by phone and makes home visits six months after that.

Given made one such visit last week to Jean Bergquist, 82, of Jay. She has no family nearby, although her neighbors check on her and take her to the store. She uses her microwave and can boil eggs. She sometimes “crocked the pot,” she said, but finds it difficult to stand for any length of time because of health issues. 

Bergquist said her neighbors “spoil me with holiday meals,” delivering turkey, mashed potatoes and vegetables to her on Easter. “They’re wonderful people,” she said, often bringing cookies and other baked goods to her.

An Army veteran who lived in Florida for 41 years, Bergquist worked with an organization similar to the United Way to help Jewish women arriving in the United States from German concentration camps. Later, she worked as a secretary at the Florida International University School of Nursing.

Twelve years ago, Bergquist moved to Maine after helping her friend, Anita Reed, move back here. 

After moving, Bergquist added a porch, carport and bathroom to her house, and re-sided it. “It is no longer a ticky-tacky house,” she said. She made the house her home, and is proud of that accomplishment.

She has been receiving meals three times a week since 2012, and spent some time at Sandy River Center for Health Care & Rehabilitation in 2013 after she fell and broke her hip. 

“Meals on Wheels is really beautiful; I couldn’t do it without them,” Bergquist said. The volunteers bring her meals and often put them away. She usually eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at noon and saves the delivered meal for the evening.

“The meals are good, excellent. Nice people bring them,” Bergquist said, clearly appreciative of the program.

Reflecting on the woman’s gratitude, Given said, “Jean’s been there for everybody else. It breaks my heart that she now has no one for her.”

According to Given, Meals on Wheels collaborates with Hope Association of Rumford and WorkFirst in Farmington to meet client needs. Adults with disabilities at those programs help put meals together and go out with drivers to deliver them. Given said it was difficult to arrange this collaboration at first, but now clients ask where WorkFirst workers are if they don’t help deliver meals. 

A large bulletin board at the Livermore distribution center keeps track of daily and weekly schedules for the volunteers, their travel routes and housebound seniors who receive the deliveries.

For seniors who are able to get out of the house, the program offers a hot meal and socialization at various dining sites, including the Rangeley Townhouse Apartments, The Brickyard Cafe in Farmington, LaFleur’s Family Restaurant in Jay and the Chuck Wagon Restaurant in Livermore Falls, among others.

Meal vouchers are available for a $5 donation at SeniorsPlus in Livermore and Lewiston, or by calling 1-800-427-1241.

SeniorsPlus receives about 46 cents in donations for each meal. Fundraisers such as the Fill Your Plate breakfast held at the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn also help support the program.

For more information about Meals on Wheels, including how to help or where to find a community meal site, go to:

[email protected]

By the numbers

2014 Meals on Wheels in the Tri-county area:

105,000: Number of meals served.

1,200: Number of recipients.

575: Number of volunteers.

27,570: Volunteer hours for SeniorsPlus.

100: Number of people on waiting list.

75,000-80,000: Miles logged per year delivering meals.

Source: Meals on Wheels

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.