Deirdre Barr with Chef Justin Byrne plating up dinners in The Meals On Wheels kitchen.Photo Paul Molloy.

Athlone Meals on Wheels records 25% increase in past two years

Athlone Meals on Wheels has seen a 25% increase in the number of meals it's been preparing over the past two years.

The service has been operating in Athlone for 45 years, but it has expanded a lot in that time according to Manager of Athlone Meals on Wheels, Mags O'Donnell. “Instead of just Athlone, the CE scheme drivers deliver to Castledaly, Ballinahown, Moate, Ballymore, Drumraney, Tang, Glasson, Drum, Ardkeenan, Brideswell, Curraghboy and Taughmaconnell.” They provide 150 to 160 meals per day to local people.

Ms O'Donnell said that a lot of service users during the pandemic were from rural areas and that anyone who availed of the service since then has not left. She explained: “No one is coming to the house except for the person with the dinner. They had no social contact.”

Ms O'Donnell continued: “Everything is gone so expensive. If they're only paying €4 or €5 a day (for a meal) it's much cheaper.” She said that it's not just about the dinner as some volunteers bring newspapers or sliced pans to the person receiving the meal.

The community-based service has around 60 or 70 volunteers in Athlone and each volunteer undertakes one route delivering meals, which takes about one or two hours a week.

“We're conscious that petrol and diesel has gotten so expensive. We try to make sure they only have one day in the week of volunteering. We couldn't run the service without the volunteers,” said Ms O'Donnell.

The Manager of the Athlone branch was happy to learn what all the other branches were doing at the recent first-ever national Meals on Wheels conference held in Athlone which was designed to see how they could improve their services. Ms O'Donnell said that there was a great speaker on funding at the conference, and she was hopeful that the service would be in a position to secure additional funding in the future.

The Roscommon native has been working for the local Meals on Wheels branch for 14 years. “I love the job. We get a great sense of pride in our job and love the fact that we're helping people,” she said. She mentioned some of the highlights of the job included talking to different clients on the phone about how happy they are with the meals and that the service never closed during the pandemic.

“Rural Ireland has changed so much. If a family know Mam or Dad is getting a meal it helps them with worry, someone calling to the door. Not everyone is able to cook for themselves.

“They've got to know the volunteers and look forward to the chat. It's an important part of (the service user's) day.” Ms O'Donnell also said that the volunteers will mention it if they notice something unusual whilst out on a run delivering meals: “There's an element of looking after people. They get to know them.”

Speaking about what the volunteers get out of the experience, Ms O'Donnell explained: “They get a great sense of fulfilment. They all say it's only an hour or two in the week. Lots of volunteers, until they come here, never realise the amount of people getting meals. I think it's great we help so much.

“We're really trying not to put up the cost of meals. A lot of people getting meals are on the pension. It's great we can provide so many meals in a small kitchen,” added the service manager.

The local Meals on Wheels branch previously received funding which enabled it to purchase two vans for delivering meals. “With the funding we got from the Lotto, that helped us to make it a better service. We're applying for grants to help alleviate the costs.” Ms O'Donnell also said that the service relied on donations from people in Athlone and support from local businesses.

She said she would encourage more people to get involved in volunteering with Meals on Wheels: “It's just one or two hours per week. You don't have to commit to a particular day. It's very rewarding.”

The Kiltoom resident added that there had been many changes since she first began working for Meals on Wheels. “When I started here first it was mainly for elderly people. We (now) help people recovering from surgery, getting treatment for cancer, and people suffering with mental health.”

Ms O'Donnell cited the rising cost of living as a major reason for the recent increase in meals being provided.

“Everything's gone up from electricity to food cost. Even turkey used to cost €4.70 per kilo and it's gone up to €7.95. It's nearly doubled in cost.

“I really do feel for the elderly and people living on their own. If they're trying to do a shop, pay the ESB, I think it's very tough for them. If 160 people are getting meals they can stay at home, so there's a safety element.” Ms O' Donnell added that some service users who have Alzheimers or other illnesses may not be allowed to have a kettle for example so it's important they get a hot meal provided to them.

There is no waiting list or means test for Meals on Wheels. Once a referral is given by a nurse or doctor a meal is provided to the client.

Meals on Wheels Athlone is planning to have an afternoon for former and current volunteers in the new year to give them an opportunity to meet other volunteers and have a coffee.

The National Meals on Wheels Network's first conference took place in the Athlone Springs Hotel. The theme of the event was 'Celebrating the Role of Meals on Wheels in Ireland – Now and into the Future'. The network was established in 2015, under the umbrella of Moate-based Irish Rural Link.

Anyone who would like more information on the programme, or who wishes to volunteer with Meals on Wheels Athlone, should contact the branch at 090 64 94393.