Blair Senior Services Home Delivered Meals program does more than just provide a hot meal for senior citizens in Blair County.
"They would probably be unable to remain in their homes if this service wasn't available to them," said Jessica Lippert, community services program manager. "We did a survey in April and asked how have [meals] helped you; 98.2 percent said they have helped them remain independently in their homes."
The drivers check on the welfare of the meal recipients as well.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec)
Amy Graham, who works for Blair Senior Services, delivers meals to people who live in Graystone Court Villas, 1101 Flamingo Drive, on Wednesday.
"We check on them three times a week to make sure they are OK," said Laura Ford, program coordinator. "We have found people on the floor that need help. If they [drivers] don't get an answer, we have a system where drivers call the intake department which has contact information on the people. They can check doctors offices or the hospital to make sure we can locate them and they are safe."
Home Delivered Meals, often called Meals on Wheels, has been a core program of Blair Senior Services which was established in 1974 and designated as the Area Agency on Aging for Blair County.
"The goal is to enhance the lives of older individuals, their families and others in need by coordinating and providing support and assistance through a system of quality home and community-based programs and services," Lippert said. "One way is to provide meals to people who are homebound."
Those who receive the meals save taxpayers money, Lippert said.
Every dollar invested in the program saves $50 in Medicaid spending, according to the National Meals on Wheels Association.
Volunteers and a few paid drivers deliver 600 meals three times a week to residents of Blair County.
"We deliver Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They get a hot meal and receive a frozen meal for Tuesdays and Thursdays so they are covered five days a week," Lippert said.
Recipients also receive extra meals to cover holidays and weekends if needed.
Not everyone is eligible for the program.
To be eligible a person must be a resident of Blair County, be 60 or older, be homebound and unable to prepare meals for themselves, Lippert said. Once someone is referred to the program, a case manager does an assessment to make sure they meet the requirements.
The meals are prepared by The Nutrition Group at a production kitchen at 1815 Ninth Ave. Delivery to consumers begins in Altoona about 10 a.m. but the rural routes go out earlier. Meals are delivered to the Southern Blair Senior Center in East Freedom, the Williamsburg Senior Center and the Northern Blair Senior Center in Tyrone, where drivers pick them up for distribution. In Altoona, volunteers pick up the meals at the production kitchen.
A nutritionist creates the menu - a three-month meal cycle.
"We try to have a variety. All meet one-third of their daily nutritional requirements. Some of the favorites are tater crusted fish and traditional things like roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy," Lippert said.
Recipients do not have to pay for the meals but donations are accepted. The average cost of a meal is $2.97, Lippert said.
The meals are delivered by a group of volunteers and a few paid drivers.
"In the last quarter, we had 103 volunteers assist with delivery. We would need between 150 and 185 to do it properly," Lippert said.
"We have a critical shortage right now for volunteers. Several routes are not covered each week and that takes staff from our building to cover the routes," Ford said.
Volunteers play a key role in the success of the program.
"Sometimes a volunteer is the only person a homebound person will see that day. Our volunteers become pretty connected to the people they deliver to. They can tell if something is wrong or something unusual is going on," Lippert said.
"They are like a friend stopping to deliver a meal. They quickly become a best friend and they look forward to delivering the meals to people who have no one looking out for them," Ford said.
Allison Tomei of Warriors Mark and Erin Boyles of Gallitzin recently served as Home Delivered Meals volunteers.
Tomei said she was curious to see how the program worked.
"I had heard about all of the success stories of people delivering the meals," Tomei said. "It ended up being rewarding for me. I would take the meals in and talk to them, they were so appreciative and glad I was there."
"I saw the benefits it had to someone who didn't have a hot meal and how it helped them interact with people who wanted to help make their lives better," Boyles said.
Winter weather presents additional challenges for those delivering the meals.
"The main challenge is snow. In the city, there are some roads where you can't get two cars through. That makes it hard to find a place to park or pull over to drop off the meals. When the weather gets too bad, we cancel and don't deliver. We don't want anyone to get hurt," Lippert said.
Delivery was canceled eight times between Dec. 9 and Feb. 14, the most cancellations since 1995, Lippert said.
Both Lippert and Ford expect the program to grow as the county's population continues to age.
"We are hopeful we can get at least 100 percent of our routes covered by volunteers with a lot of backup volunteers who want to do it periodically," Ford said. "We have some very caring people in Blair County. We would like to have a pool to cover 25 routes and have backups."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.