As part of National Meals on Wheels week I was invited to observe one of the meals on wheels deliveries operated by Hertfordshire Independent Living Service (HILS), a local social enterprise delivering around 500,000 meals each year across Hertfordshire.
I arrived at the Jubilee Centre, one of their four bases, in St Albans on a rainy, grey day and was introduced to the driver I was to spend the next few hours with- Bernard. We went to the ‘wheels’ part of the MoW service, and as we got into the car, we could smell the dinners that we would be serving. The food smelled good- and I started to feel hungry as the aromas wafted from the heated box in the boot of the car!
As we drove around the delivery route, I was impressed by Bernard’s knowledge of Hertfordshire. Though he had a sheet with the names and addresses of the 26 customers we were about to visit, he seemed to know where he was going with barely a glimpse at the notes and no SatNav. Bernard explained that he had been working for the HILS since February.
We pulled up outside the first house on the list, went to the boot of the car, and Bernard checked his sheet to see what meal the customer had ordered. Chicken breast for his main course and rhubarb and custard for pudding. Bernard reached into the box, retrieved the two dishes and walked down the drive. The door was slightly ajar, so we knocked, pushed the door open and were greeted by a smiling, smartly dressed older man, who was obviously waiting for his lunch to arrive, he already had a small oven open, ready for his lunch to be placed into, to keep warm until he was ready to eat it. Once the food was safely in the oven, he asked Bernard if he would take the tops off his bottle eye drops. He had two new bottles, but had been unable to unscrew the lids. Bernard took the lids off and checked that his customer was able to put the drops in himself.
As the round progressed I was impressed by Bernard’s knowledge and observations of his customers, he was aware of the individual quirks of many of them. In this customer’s case, he asked him whether he’d been ironing. Bernard had noticed that in the room adjoining the kitchen the ironing board was all set up, with shirts hanging nearby. They indulged in a little banter about ironing, and then we were back out of the house to the car. In a few short minutes, as well as seeing a hot meal delivered to someone’s home, I realised I had observed something very special, and that despite the delivery itself taking a few short minutes, the encounter had extended far beyond a task. Bernard had established a relationship and rapport with his customer, observed how he was and helped him with his eye drops, this skilled interaction is summarised as the ‘well-being check’.
As we went around various homes, it became clear that Bernard knew all his customers very well, and tried to arrange the round to accommodate as many of these needs as possible, for example, one customer liked to have her lunch as near to 12 midday as possible, and as we pulled up outside her home at 11.58, I noticed a proud smile on Bernard’s face.
A range of foods were delivered, chicken seemed to be very popular, but there were other things, steak and kidney, one household had a vegetarian bean dish (without dairy products due to allergy). The rhubarb and custard pudding seemed to be a clear favourite for the customers we delivered to, but there were a few treacle puddings, a cheesecake and mousse.
We saw a range of customers in different types of homes and living in a range of different social circumstances, from large well-appointed houses, to small terraces, sheltered housing and flats. Many of the customers lived alone, but there were couples, and in one house a dog (Bernard even had a biscuit in his pocket for the dog!). A few had carers or family members with them as we arrived. In some homes we saw evidence of family carers, for example, one customer with dementia, had notes taped around her kitchen with reminders (she told us these were from her daughter) to ‘drink lots of water’, or ‘if you feel hungry make toast’ along with details of where the bread was stored. Some customers were able to answer the door themselves, often using walking aids, others had key safes outside the house, with the code noted on the sheet that Bernard had, so he could let himself in. Other homes had key safes but Bernard knocked on the door- as he said he knew the customer could answer the door and it was good to encourage them to do this rather than letting himself in, patiently waiting for them to unlock the door. The oldest customer on the round was in his late 90s.
The connection and exchanges between Bernard and the customers was great to see. One customer asked why we were delivering his meal- as on Wednesdays it was usually ‘the Watford fan’, we said we supported Arsenal (Bernard) and Barnsley (me), to lots of eye-rolling from him, and an exchange about that evening’s game. There was even a little bit of flirting from one customer, a very smartly dressed woman with dementia who beamed when Bernard complimented her outfit. She asked if I would be back tomorrow, and Bernard explained that it would just be him. She flashed a cheeky smile and said good, I love a man with a beard and moustache!
The food delivered by HILS clearly helps support older people, who for a number of reasons are unable to prepare meals for themselves or shop for food, to stay in their own homes. However, at least as important was the human and caring aspects of the service. The HILS driver is a visitor that people clearly looked forward to, offering a friendly face and reassurance that someone who is interested in and cares about them would be visiting.