Elderly volunteers a concern for agency

Seniors, often as old as clients, are heart of Meals on Wheels

November 24, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Nancy Allchin warily eyes the stone steps to the modest Towson rowhouse. There are more than a dozen of them, steep, and her balance at age 77 is not what it used to be. Still, Allchin gamely tackles the steps, hoisting two trays she brings every Friday as a Meals on Wheels volunteer.

At the top, Margaret Ford, 85, tells Allchin she's doing better than some of the others who bring her daily lunches and dinners. Of another volunteer, Ford says: "He doesn't get around as well as I do."

For Meals on Wheels programs in Maryland and around the country, that phenomenon - volunteers as old as their clients - is an increasing worry. At Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, 37 percent of the 3,118 volunteers are over age 70, and a tenth are older than 80.

The total number of volunteers has been falling since hitting 3,301 in 1999, in part because older volunteers are leaving, says Toni Gianforti, the program's marketing and communications manager.

"The clientele is getting older, and the volunteers are getting older as well. It is becoming an issue," says Peggy Ingraham, director of policy and legislation for Meals on Wheels Association of America.

The national association's programs serve more than a million meals a day - and 40 percent of these programs have waiting lists because of a shortage of volunteers and funding, Ingraham says.

Meals on Wheels started 60 years ago as a project not of the elderly but of civic-minded women helping out at a time of war. When German planes bombarded England during World War II, the Women's Volunteer Service for Civil Defense rallied to prepare and deliver meals to people who had lost their homes.

The idea caught on, and a social worker brought it to America in 1954, starting the first Meals on Wheels program for homebound seniors in Philadelphia. Many of the volunteers, known as "Platter Angels," were high school students.

But with women entering the work force and students' lives crowded with activities, senior citizens have become the largest group available to volunteer in the middle of a weekday, when the meals must be delivered.

The older volunteers are wonderfully reliable, Meals on Wheels officials say.

"We have been very blessed in this program with a fantastic group of generous people who are willing to do this," says Bob Schap, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, which serves Baltimore city and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard, Harford counties and parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

But they bring with them concern about climbing steps, about illness, and about how long people of a certain age can stay with their routes - not to mention the delicate matter of when a volunteer may be too old to drive.

Many Meals on Wheels volunteers didn't even start with the organization until they retired - and found themselves with empty hours to fill.

In Jeff Hazard's case, his wife, Grace, fairly pushed him out of the house into volunteering after his retirement 20 years ago. Now the 85-year-old Roland Park resident is hooked on his route. After declining vision forced his partner to stop driving, Hazard started taking his 75-year-old wife along.

Hazel McCurdy, 85, of Riderwood was looking for a project after her husband died. She has been a Meals on Wheels volunteer for the past 16 years. She has skipped some weeks to recuperate from a mastectomy and another major surgery, but she returned as soon as she could.

McCurdy says she will keep delivering meals "until I fall over," adding: "I'm still raring to go as long as I can."

But those who run Meals on Wheels know even determined volunteers can't stay with them forever. A national initiative to recruit younger people is planned for next spring.

Drive for younger help

The Central Maryland program has started its own drive for new volunteers.

It has started a grocery shopping program to attract workers who might be willing to use some evenings to shop for the homebound. It is also trying to get the word out at schools and at companies that might give employees a lunch hour or two a week in the name of community service.

One such company is Harbor Enterprise Center Management, an incubator for small businesses in Canton, where manager Lois Foster, 49, and assistant manager Margie Schatz, 44, have had a Thursday route for the past year.

"They're really fun," Schatz says of her customers. "A lot of people have a particular place where they want you to set their food. Some will just greet you at the front door."

Many of the volunteers are like Allchin, a lively Timonium woman who nonetheless worries about how long she can keep up the volunteering she's done for 20 years.

"I do expect to continue," Allchin says, after climbing another steep staircase. "But I sometimes wonder if the old knee is going to hold out."

Stories kept on file

The clients keep her going. Their stories are kept on index cards laminated in plastic in a black book, quick thumbnail sketches of people Allchin has come to know over months and years.

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