‘Looking after the oldies’: when Meals on Wheels lost half its workforce, young Australians stepped in | Australian lifestyle
My earliest memories of my grandma involve sitting in the passenger seat of “The Pumpkin” (a Bakelite-orange 1973 Toyota Corolla with questionable brakes) and rattling around Malvern East, delivering Meals on Wheels.
Nan was well past 80 by this point, and would probably have qualified for the program herself, but she was powered by some kind of internal generosity engine, and every week she’d stock The Pumpkin with cooked meals, biscuits, slices of fruit cake – and me – and drive around town delivering food to “the oldies”. It was the same community spirit that turned her kitchen into an industrial-scale shortbread factory every November.
When Covid-19 struck earlier this year, I wanted to follow Nan’s charitable footsteps, so I became a Meals on Wheels delivery driver – along with tens of thousands of other Australians.
Our timing turned out to be critical.
Many of Meals on Wheels’ 76,000 volunteers are aged over 70 themselves and fall into the government’s high-risk category for Covid-19. When lockdowns began in March, the recommendation was for high-risk individuals to self-isolate at home, and within a few days, Meals on Wheels lost half its national workforce – approximately 35,000 drivers.
“We saw a doubling of demand in some areas at the same time that many volunteers were withdrawing their services, concerned about their age and the door-to-door nature of the work,” says Kate Thiele, executive director of Meals on Wheels Australia.
Faced with widespread food insecurity, Meals on Wheels put out an emergency call for volunteers, which was picked up by media personalities such as Craig Foster and Jon Dee. The response surprised everyone, and pretty soon local organisations were swamped with applications from an unexpected demographic: young people.
“We had the most incredible, overwhelming response,” Thiele says. “In South Australia, they received three years’ worth of applications in three weeks, many from people in their 20s and 30s.”
Thankfully, the influx of young volunteers (young-ish, in my case) has allowed Meals on Wheels to keep trucking along, despite overwhelming, almost biblical odds. Organisations in regional New South Wales and Victoria have battled through bushfires, floods and a pandemic this year, delivering hot meals to firefighters, as well as toilet paper, hand-stitched masks and sanitiser to isolated rural communities.
My own experience has been far less dramatic. On day one I was presented with a fluorescent yellow vest, an official council parking pass (which, I’ll admit, gave me a disproportionate sense of power), and a clipboard with my clients’ delivery details: name, address, dietary requirements, how many servings of penne bolognese etc, plus any specific delivery instructions (“Knock loudly at back door. Client is hard of hearing.”)
Every driver has their assigned route – plotted A-to-B delivery schedule, which in some ways resembles a Year 12 maths conundrum. Assuming a consistent speed, calculate the most fuel-efficient path between these 15 houses, in order to minimise the distance travelled. Don’t forget to show your workings. At each stop, I check the client details, find the labelled cooler bag in the backseat, and quickly sterilise my hands. By the end of the shift, all you can smell is the sickly, stomach-churning mix of isopropyl alcohol and aloe vera.
Of the 10m meals produced by Meals and Wheels across Australia each year, I deliver about 15 per shift. If a client isn’t home or someone else accepts the meal, I have to log the anomaly on my clipboard. Meals on Wheels is often the first point of contact for isolated Australians, and they have a remarkably thorough – if endearingly analogue – record-keeping system. It’s also why there’s a council-supplied first-aid kit in the car, which I’m hoping I’ll never have to use.
“My sense is that Meals on Wheels is more relevant now than ever,” Thiele says. “When we’ve got older people at risk, to keep them in their homes, to keep them with their possessions, where they feel safe and independent. We offer far more than just a meal.”
I have to say, most clients I speak to seem remarkably chipper about the general state of the world. Even here in Melbourne, under stage-four lockdown, I was amazed by the general, one-day-at-a-time stoicism you encounter. “Make sure you keep active, young man,” one old lady tells me. “A walk around the block does wonders.” Another client says I look like I need feeding up.
Volunteering is usually considered a gift, but I’ve come to think of it more as a trade. I give my time and energy – and petrol – and in return I get purpose, contentedness and an internal glow that sits somewhere between smugness and joy. If anything, I feel like I’m getting the better end of the deal. It’s been, by far, the most satisfying thing I’ve done in years.
I remember asking Nan one day why she delivered Meals on Wheels, especially since many of her clients were 20 years younger than she was. “I like looking after the oldies,” she told me. “Besides, it keeps me young.”