It's not just a meal -- it's a connection with another human being.
That's the message state and local officials received after volunteering to support Meals on Wheels during Community Champions week. The week is part of the March for Meals, an annual month-long awareness campaign for the program.
Bonnie K. Burman, director of the Ohio Department of Aging, stopped by the Center for Older Adults in Delaware on Thursday, March 20, to help pack meals and go on a route with Meals on Wheels volunteers.
"I want to learn from the people who are delivering firsthand," she said. "I want to see our programs and our dollars in action."
Burman said she visited Delaware County largely because Council for Older Adults officials and volunteers are on the cutting edge when it comes to providing services to seniors.
"What (they) do here is kind of a microcosm of how our entire system is moving," she said.
Previously, Burman said, eldercare was seen as a one-size-fits-all proposition, with agencies and companies focusing on making it easier to provide services to the largest group of people. She said the new idea is to tailor services to the individual, which may cost more in the short run but save money over time.
Toni Dodge, nutrition program manager for the council, said Delaware County's Meals on Wheels menus served as a good example.
She said the program's clients have the choice of a hot or cold meal, plus two alternate cold entrees and one alternate hot meal. Clients also choose among 2 percent milk, skim milk, chocolate milk and orange juice.
Therapeutic meals, such as low-sodium choices, and options for different religions and cultures also are available. Volunteers also bring donated treats for seniors with pets.
Dodge said the program, funded by a mix of levy dollars, donations and state and federal support, served almost 177,000 meals in 2013. That includes meals served to "congregant clients," or seniors who meet at the Center for Older Adults and other sites throughout the county to eat with other seniors.
Burman said giving the seniors different menu options is a good example of what she called "flattening the hierarchy." The goal, she said, is to get the decision-making power "closest to the person who is getting the care."
When that happens, the person being served is often happier, healthier and more likely to stay in the community -- and out of a long-term health-care facility, which saves money in the long run.
About 300 volunteers, mostly other seniors, help serve the meals in Delaware County.
"Predominantly, it's going to be individuals who have retired," she said. "This is their second stage and they want to give back to the community."
Council spokeswoman Donna Meyer said the interaction between the volunteers and clients acts as a "window into the life of the individual." As the volunteers and clients learn more about each other, the volunteers have better insight into whether something is wrong, she said.
Burman agreed and said volunteers can notice changes in dress or appearance of their clients and contact relatives or other caregivers.
"This is not just about delivering a meal," she said. "It is also about making sure people are eating the meal."
Burman was joined March 20 by state Rep. Margaret Ann Ruhl (R-Mount Vernon), who said she was going on a route to "see the connections between the individuals at home and (the volunteers)."
Public officials from Powell, the city of Delaware and Delaware County's villages and townships volunteered with the program Wednesday, March 19.
Burman said Delaware County could serve as a model for other communities looking to improve their senior services.
"In Delaware County, they truly get it," she said. "They understand our brand of person-centered (care)."
For more information on Delaware County's Meals on Wheels program or volunteer opportunities, call the Center for Older Adults at 740-363-6677.