Eliseo Gonzales

Eliseo Gonzales helps out on Wednesday with the Senior Connection’s Meals on Wheels program. Ordinarily he works as the facilities manager and afternoon bus driver.

The Senior Connection’s Meals on Wheels team set out Thursday morning to bring hundreds of meatloaf lunches to elders around town, complete with red potatoes, peas, a green salad, fruit and cake for dessert.

The program was originally designed to help less mobile Blaine County seniors maintain their independence and avoid assisted living by providing a hot lunch, a friendly face and a safety check each day. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the program is serving three times as many seniors who now face extended isolation from neighbors and friends.

“It is a lonesome time for our seniors, especially those who were regulars at our lunches, fitness classes, field trips and other programs,” said Senior Connection Community Relations Manager Ramona Duke. “We also try to call each member once a week to check in.”

The Senior Connection community center at 721 Third Avenue in Hailey was a focal point of social interaction and daily meals until it served its last lunch on March 13, one day before the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in Blaine County and the building was closed down.

Since that time, the Meals on Wheels program has ramped up its five-day-a-week deliveries and pick-up services from 125 per week to more than 350 per week—a jump from 25 people per day to upwards of 70.

“We have added another route so that it does not overwhelm our drivers and also the clients get their meal around or before lunchtime,” Duke said.

Safety precautions have been implemented to protect seniors from viral transmission. Kitchen staff and drivers wear masks and gloves, and sanitize frequently, Duke said. Drivers don’t enter the client’s home—they drop the food at the door. For curbside pickup, the meal is set on a table. The client waits in his or her car until Senior Connection volunteers clear the area and it’s safe to take the package.

The meals delivery team is made up of a few long-time volunteers. Duke said the Senior Connection has otherwise pulled back on the number of volunteers back to limit staff exposure to the virus.

“Katie Phillips, our Meals on Wheels Coordinator, is scheduling drivers and re-organizing the routes as we continue to add new clients,” Duke said.

In-home caregivers whose visits have been curtailed due to virus transmission risks are also helping out.

“Our caregivers are also helping deliver since many of our home care clients have cut back on their hours,” Duke said.

The meals are prepared in the Senior Connection building as usual, said Duke.

“We have also been putting together supplemental food bags with shelf-stable food such as soups, tuna, peanut butter and crackers,” she said. “We are currently working to make sure all our clients have a microwave oven to heat meals and will hopefully be putting some frozen meals in their freezer next week.”

The Senior Connection has instituted a Senior Friend telephone line for clients wanting to stay connected to staff. It is manned from 2-3 p.m. Monday through Friday and can be accessed at (208) 788-3468.

“This is for anyone who would just like to chat,” Duke said.

Email the writer: tevans@mtexpress.com

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