In November we blogged about the Meals on Wheels service in Hertfordshire, organised through Hertfordshire Independent Living Services (HILS) and with food supplied from Apetito, one of the largest providers in the sector. As we bustle towards the Christmas holidays it’s perhaps worth us reflecting further on the meaning of food from others – whether it’s delivered from Meals on Wheels providers, luncheon clubs, drivers who bring frozen ready meals for customers to reheat, cakes offered at a church coffee morning or food gifts from thoughtful family, friends or neighbours.
During the course of our research and our work we have met older people who do not have regular visitors or frequent social contact and eating is usually undertaken alone. There is ample research evidence that food connects us with our social environment and invokes strong memories – of our childhood and family, school (lumpy mashed potato and pink custard anyone?!), romantic dinners or fun meals with friends so what impact does it have when current eating practices are undertaken solo with little opportunity for eating with others? For some older people we have interviewed electing to no longer bake cakes for others, invite friends round for dinner or provide snacks for visitors is a pragmatic decision – with individuals prioritising keeping their energy (or money) for things considered more important or changing their behaviours to something more manageable by, for example, providing a sandwich lunch rather than a three course meal for visiting family.
While many day centres/lunch clubs provide an environment for older people to eat and potentially socialise with others, some older people say they are reluctant to take advantage of lunch clubs either because they are worried they won’t like the food or that it would disrupt their daily routines. For others, their reluctance may be due to a lack of a lunch clubs nearby (or existing ones have closed due to lack of funds/poor attendance) or poor transport services to help the frailer older person attend. Some clubs have started to organise sessions and services that don’t focus on food e.g. chair exercise/dancing sessions, carpet Bingo, on-site hairdressing salons, craft classes, coach trips etc., so that people can still drop in for a cuppa and a chat with less need to be there at a particular time or removing the need to eat with others.
In recent visits to Lunch clubs around Hertfordshire, we have witnessed committed staff and volunteers offer a superb meet and greet service to everyone who attends these clubs and some centres have even gone out of their way to encourage and sustain attendance of older people who would normally be alone or by assisting in the pick-up and drop-off of older people to and from their homes. Some staff members at these lunch clubs have also trained to become dementia friends and undertaken training on how to be aware of early signs of malnutrition and dehydration among more vulnerable clients. In the future, organisations like HILS are thinking of organising a be-friending service so that their friendly, caring drivers can spend more time with clients later in the day than is possible during the lunchtime Meals on Wheels deliveries, when the priority is ensuring everyone gets their food delivered whilst it is still hot, within a 2-3 hour lunchtime window.
A recent visit to Apetito alerted us to the care they take when recruiting the ‘right kind’ of people for their business – this includes people to work with the Wiltshire Farm Foods service, which allows customers to order from a range of frozen meals and to have them delivered. Tim Charles, Head of Product Development at Apetito told us that drivers need to have the right values and to be concerned about the welfare of customers. Drivers do not simply drop the meals at the door, they take them inside and put them into customer’s freezers, they chat to the people they deliver to and often welcome a cup of tea if one is offered. Whilst this is a private sector enterprise they have strong ethical values and a sense of Corporate Social Responsibility – profit does not come at the expense of those using their services.
So this Christmas time perhaps we can all consider our values and what would benefit the older people in our communities. Many areas have befriender services, through Age UK for example and the Campaign to End Loneliness uses social media to urge all of us to go the extra mile – to look out for our older neighbours – invite them round for a mince pie or a glass of sherry. Not everyone who eats alone this Christmas is perhaps doing so out of choice.