Meals on Wheels Isn’t About Food: The Future of Scheduled Friendships
As soon as my schedule opened up after my divorce in 2017, I started volunteering for a Meals on Wheels route.
Every Monday, I drive to an assisted living center, the hub for “Opportunities” programs in a nearby county. I pick up ten hot meals; along with ten bags of milk, ten sticky, styrofoam dishes of fruit, and ten frozen, microwaveable meals. I drive around the countryside and deliver them to people, mostly older folks for whom getting out is difficult.
These weekly visits over the past two years got me thinking about how I want my life to look in 40 or 50 years. We’re all going to last a lot longer, thanks to medicine and better quality of life, so you may as well plan for the far future.
On my route, not everyone is poor. You might think Meals on Wheels is all about feeding the hungry, but people are hungry for a lot more than food. Some are taking care of a sick spouse 24/7. Some don’t drive. Many appreciate the quick snatches of conversation way more than the meals.
In the future, Meals on Wheels (or something like it) will become more of a societal standard than a charitable organization.
As our population ages, we can’t let old folks rattle around their houses without regular interaction with others. Even if they’re independent, no one should be alone for too many days at a time.
Furthermore, younger people benefit by being exposed to vital, older folks who want to contribute value, even if it’s just a story or a peaceful hour of conversation. I know I do. And now, I’m looking ahead.
When I’m ready, I’m want to design a life where I have all the company I want, but the opportunity to retreat whenever I feel like it.
I’m taking notes.
Two independent, older women on my route have become friends.
One is 98; the other is 95. Let’s call them Dot and Annie. Both of them live by themselves in their own homes, something I’m considering.
My mother, too, is aging in her own home alone. I’m 800 miles away from my mom, and would like to think she’d be cool with someone bringing her food and friendship every week.
She has too much pride for Meals on Wheels, though, because she thinks its charity.
I wish we could call Meals on Wheels something different for women like my mom.
Meanwhile, I’m watching these women on my route, and trying to pay it forward to a community I’d want to live in someday.
Here’s an interesting similarity.
Both Annie and Dot have told me, at one time or another, that their greatest loss in aging has been not being able to read anymore. Can you imagine being hungry to read, and being unable to due to poor eyesight?
If anyone can solve that problem for our aging population, that would be a valuable service. A lot of us will still want to read in our old age.
Being the cerebral type, and claiming books as friends, I now know this could backfire if a life of solitude seems like the sweet life. You think in old age you’ll have all the time in the world to read, but then you can’t read anymore.
Dot reminds me of her half birthday every year. “Today I am closer to 99 than 98, you know. I’m on the other side of of the year now.”
Dot uses colorful language. She tells great stories. Stories about working for the FBI right after WWII, doing surveillance at businesses suspected of some untold crimes. She remembers her childhood like it was yesterday, complete with stories of murder, memorable births, dangerous animals, strangers passing through, local leaders and landmarks named for them. She tells stories about a cowboy church that was more like a honky tonk than a church. About going right up to a man at a public event at the Capitol building in Austin, thinking it was her neighbor whom she hadn’t seen in awhile; having a nice long conversation, and then nearly dying of embarrassment as he stepped up to the podium, introduced as the governor of Texas. (“I swear it looked exactly like him.”)
She tells me her son had a “wall-eyed fit” when she sold her house in Austin. Now, she lives close to where she was born, near a natural spring where locals go when Austin’s heat is unbearable. Her home has original art on the walls, and bookshelves full of books on astrology and numerology.
Books she can’t read anymore.
Dot has an optical magnifying machine she says cost thousands, but it’s difficult to maneuver the text under the glass. She only uses it for short bits of required reading; looking up phone numbers and reading directions, or her horoscope.
She gets shots in her eyes every month and now her vision is limited to a wide peripheral arc around wherever she fixes her gaze.
Dot told me yesterday that the doctor thinks she may have a tumor on her kidney. She’s not feeling her best around here, she tells me, placing her hands high at her sides. I ask her if she feels any pain, and she shrugs, like that’s not the point.
She’s not going to have a biopsy because she doesn’t care whether it’s cancer or not, because she’s not going to have an operation anyway (nor chemo), because she doesn’t want to feel sick and live in a hospital the rest of her life.
Who can argue with that?
She told me of a simple inquiry to her son about an old friend; and how he told her she should mind her own business and worry about what SHE was going to do from one day to the next. (As if…! The nerve…!)
My thoughts flit to conversations with my teenage sons, and I imagine them as grumpy old men, with heartaches and joint pain of their own. I know how difficult I can be with my kids. I could never guess the intricate connection Dot has with her son of 70-something years. Long term relationships never get less complicated.
“What do I have to do?” She looked in my eyes, the best she could. “From one day to the next…”
“At this point, I don’t drive, I can’t see, I can’t read, all I have to do is to get up every morning and try to enjoy my life.”
“Try to enjoy my life.”
I couldn’t tell whether she was happy about that. I used to think that older folks who are generally healthy and comfortable obtain a level of wisdom that enables them to live above the average level of happiness. I figured if you took care of your body and mind, your spirit would follow right along. Now I don’t believe there is an average level of anything.
After my divorce I decided it was time to try to enjoy my life. I’m fifty-two now. I’m only doing stuff that matters to me from here on. Much of it is pretty simple, really: Contribute good work as long as possible. Be in nature. Spend time with my family and friends. Move my body. Read. Dance as much as I can.
I wonder how long it’s been since Dot got up each morning with the aim to try to enjoy her life. Fifty years? Five months?
Some days, Dot seems restless as a teenager in that shrinking body of hers. Teenagers are always talking about what they wish they could do, but can’t yet. They say crazy stuff just to get a reaction. Teenagers don’t think they have any real power… not yet. I didn’t think I had any power when I was a teenager. Now I know that’s not true.
In Dot’s case, I can’t decide if she feels she has any real power over her life. I hope she does. I think I know what she’d say if I asked her about that. She’d say of course she has.
But still, I can sense her frustration. This makes me sad, and unsure how I can help. This makes us friends.
Then there’s Annie. Annie misses mowing the lawn. Her kids, who live nearby and visit often, won’t let her anymore. She’s told me this many times. She and Blue, a fierce, but harmless Blue Healer, walk around the yard many times a day. They go to the mailbox.
She tells me about growing up on a farm, a tomboy and youngest child. She insists she married a man as stubborn as she. [“Don’t tell me I have to do something, and don’t tell me I can’t do something…but I can be talked into doing just about anything.”] He’s been gone for over thirty years.
She tells stories about working in a drugstore (which over many decades became Walgreens) until she was 78. After working with the public for all those years, the holidays last year left her feeling like she didn’t know how to talk to people anymore. I found out it was the other way around. She really does know how to talk to people, but they don’t know how to talk to her. Everyone in her family of three generations was occupied with their phones after Thanksgiving dinner. Not Annie. She left the table because she felt they were being rude.
I wonder if the contrast between what is and what was is a factor in happiness, the older we get.
When I started this Meals on Wheels route, I could not have foreseen that these women would become filters through which I envision my future life. They helped me make the decision to downsize last year. Now they’re helping me determine what it might mean to enjoy my life in old age.
I decided a long time ago that I would live to be at least 100. So whenever I meet someone nearing that age, I watch what they do, what they eat, where they live, what they do with their hours each day.
I ask questions, and take time to understand how they got there. I note how they talk, what attitudes shine through, what rattles them, and how they’ve set up their house for their age; as if I can put these data points into some complex algorithm, and come up with a plan for my own life.
I listen to their stories because I’m curious. I’m obsessed with how to get from this point to that point, decades into the future.
These old folks are living the dream. Old women living independently in their houses; “aging in place,” as they say. Their living arrangements are what many people say they want in their golden years.
But if you don’t have (or want) people regularly checking on you, your situation might suck.
We need people around, especially as we age. Volunteers welcome.
When you’re young and busy, you imagine each hour would be precious, but I really don’t think so. Hours are long and boring, especially if you’d prefer to be reading, but can’t. There are audiobooks, but audiobooks involve technology beyond the capabilities of the average 98 year old. You can’t just tell them to upload the Audible app.
Loss of vision leads to more dust than you even know is accumulating. I think about this as I try to put on makeup with my readers on. I can’t really be sure I’ve done my eyebrows right at 50, let alone when I’m 90. (Please God, take my vanity along with my eyesight.) The inability to drive means you’d better be jolly happy at home for days at a time. If the TV’s not on, it’s too quiet. You might need a pet to bathe, to talk to, and to walk to the mailbox.
I worry that what I think, or have to contribute won’t matter ONE BIT to anyone in a few years. Knowledge will be ubiquitous, thanks to technology. My rudimentary skills will be outdated. The dog will be the only one who appreciates me. (Oh wait, that was last year. Some things never change.)
Here’s a thought. Maybe it’s better to cultivate an appreciation for people, even if that means random neighbors; Meals on Wheels delivery people (you get what you get); and the kids and pets of people in your neighborhood.
The best you can do at this point — and this is what I’m trying to do — is to have a lot of interesting experiences, be super-involved in your community, and learn to tell a good story. Honestly, that’s what I value most in the older folks I meet. Their stories.
I’m entertained by their stories. I’m selfish that way.
I try to buffer my Monday route with an extra hour or two, in case anyone wants to just shoot the shit.
Sure, now I can cook; drive; provide services, goods and experiences to others; understand and use technology; procure whatever I need to survive and stay entertained; and offer my listening skills and conversation.
The generations ahead of us may not be able to do all that, but they reciprocate on that last point: tea and sympathy.
These old gal friends are dear to me because they have all the time in the world for me. They ask about my life and my kids, and share stories and insights from a past as if they just happened yesterday.
It’s the circle of life. With luck, someday I’ll be telling stories that’ll entertain a woman half my age.
I’ll say, “Absorb as much as you can. Know yourself. Be curious about others. Spin a good yarn. Try to enjoy your life.”