Special delivery: Senior program delivers companionship with food

Ethel Williams depends on the convenience of home-delivered meals from the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center Senior Center because she lives alone and has a difficult time traveling to the grocery store.

Ethel Williams depends on the convenience of home-delivered meals from the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center Senior Center because she lives alone and has a difficult time traveling to the grocery store.

Lots of people are happy to see Arnold Pachecl.

Each weekday, he travels about 40 miles to deliver hot meals to 75-80 homebound seniors, usually the only hot meal they eat that day.

But it’s more than the spinach quiche or meat loaf he delivers – for some, he often provides their only human contact.

For the past 15 years, Pachecl has been a driver for the JCC Senior Center Home-Delivered Meals Program, which provides nutritional supplementation, and human interaction, for individuals who are shut-ins and homebound due to illness, limited mobility or other physical challenges.

A few years ago, one of Pachecl’s homebound clients didn’t answer the door to receive her Monday morning delivery. Since it was before he carried a cell phone, Pachecl used her neighbor’s phone to call 911. Paramedics had to break the window to get inside and found her on the floor – where she had spent the entire weekend after a fall.

This is the most extreme case he can recall. However, sometimes his clients “are here one day and the next they’re with the Lord.”

On Mondays, his delivery includes five half-pints of milk for each client, and on Fridays, two frozen meals for the weekend.

For most, the hot meal is their only one for the day and many stretch it into two.

“This is just perfect,” says Ethel Williams about the meals she receives. “I just eat a bowl of cereal in the morning and I expand (the home-delivered meal) so I can get two meals out of it.”

“If there’s a soup or salad, I use it for lunch and the rest of the meal for night,” explains Rose Skicewicz. “I only need to make a little bit of breakfast.”

Dorothy Thrasher says the program “means so much” to her. “Because of the arthritis, I’m unable to cook and another thing is I’m sun-sensitive and I break out when I get out in the sunlight to go shopping so I’m pretty much homebound.”

Pachecl’s day at the senior center starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m.; after he finishes his deliveries, he cleans the facility. He then goes to his next two jobs, cleaning a preschool and then a doctor’s office.

On weekends he and his wife often go grocery shopping for the seniors and do various maintenance jobs for them – on a volunteer basis.

“I get so attached to them,” he says. “They’re like my own family.”

At each stop along the route, he visits with the seniors, spending a few minutes with them and observing their condition. Since many of his clients have difficulty walking, he often hands them their morning newspaper along with their meal. Each day, he writes up a client progress report and reports any concerns to the JCC senior center director, Sandy Reichsfeld.

One morning he called in sick and it “took five people to deliver the food” in his absence, Reichsfeld says. He ended up coming in later that day to finish the job.

Pachecl also keeps a box of dog biscuits – which he supplies – behind his seat in the delivery van for his clients’ dogs.

“He’s the best person in the world, he does everything,” says client Beverly Budoff. “He doesn’t just deliver food, he even takes out the trash if you need it. He’s a good man, he’s a good helper – and a good friend.”

Another client, Kenneth Zimner, says he appreciates the program because it’s difficult for him to cook. “I get tired of eating frozen dinners and to get a hot meal once a day is wonderful,” he says. “I like to see this guy once a day,” he says, pointing to Pachecl. “It breaks the monotony.”

Lillian Mayer calls the program “a blessing.”

“And Arnold, God love him, he is fabulous,” she says. “When I’d have to go to the doctor, he’d make sure Edith, my neighbor, would bring my lunch home to me.”

The senior center, part of the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center, receives funds from the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, the Valley of The Sun United Way and the Area Agency on Aging and provides the only kosher home delivery program in Arizona.

Although the kosher supervision by the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth adds an additional financial strain because kosher meat and bread costs more and cannot be donated from food banks, both VOSJCC President Mark Shore and federation Executive Director Adam Schwartz express a commitment to keeping the program kosher.

Although the majority of participants do not observe kashrut, the program’s kosher status is crucial for some.

Linda Kaufman says her father Alfred Meyers, an original charter member of Jewish War Veterans, Post 194, keeps strictly kosher but is physically and financially unable to visit a kosher butcher. “To run out and go shopping and then the preparation – he’d rather just not eat,” she says.

Meyer, 89, has arthritis and Kaufman says he doesn’t have the energy or physical stamina to prepare his own meals. “He would rather get sweet rolls, and he’ll live on a sweet roll and some instant coffee with water,” she says. “If it weren’t for the meals, he wouldn’t be around.”

The home delivery program is open to seniors regardless of religion or ethnicity, but 75 percent of the participants are Jewish, says Reichsfeld. All participants are pre-screened by Maricopa County Long-Term Care, and the organization determines if the individual meets the required criteria.

Participants must be over age 60 – unless they have a physical disability – and meet financial guidelines. The average age of individuals receiving home-delivered meals is 87, but the senior center’s youngest client is 26, and others are in their late 90s.

The suggested donation per meal is $3, but people rarely pay, Reichsfeld says. Private Pay clients, such as those who are temporarily homebound due to surgery, pay $8 per meal. There are usually eight-10 of these, but the number fluctuates, she notes.

The food is transported in coolers in the back of a van leased for $1 a year from the Area Agency on Aging. The JCC pays for gas, maintenance and licensing, says agency representative Todd Gray.

Meals cater to an individual’s dietary needs – some are designed for diabetics, others have no starch. Pachecl logs food temperatures for each route, following Board of Health regulations.

Chef Robert Eagle, with help from assistant cook Sandy Bice, arrives at the senior center around 4 a.m. each weekday to start cooking. Meals, made from scratch, range from salmon and hamburgers to grilled chicken sandwiches and spaghetti with meatballs.

Eagle cooks all morning until noon, when lunch is served to the 45-60 seniors who partake in the program’s congregate meal program each weekday at the center, 1805 E. Montebello Ave., Phoenix. After Eagle and Bice serve lunch, they clean up and use remaining food to prepare frozen meals, which are later delivered to home-delivery clients for the weekend.

Eagle prepares special meals for holidays: This week he prepared a Thanksgiving meal for Wednesday’s delivery and is planning an Italian-style buffet for the center’s New Year’s celebration.

The Area Agency on Aging defines the home delivery area: Virginia Avenue on the south, Northern Avenue on the north, 12th Street on the east and 23rd Avenue on the west.

Last year, the JCC Senior Center delivered 16,000 home-delivered meals, an increase of 40 percent from 2000.

This year, due to a combination of United Way and federation funding cuts and an increase in food prices, the senior center is feeling a strain. “It’s getting harder and harder to run a good program the way it should be run,” Reichsfeld says.

“We feel very rewarded inside for being able to serve these people,” she says. “Hopefully when we reach the appropriate age, this kind of program will be here for us.”

This article first appeared in the Nov. 28, 2003 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.