Meals on Wheels drives home caring with nutrition

When Mollie Brill answers her doorbell, there's a slow but deliberate flurry of activity.

She unwraps the scarf from her head and hastily drops it in the mail box, shyly smoothing down her white hair. She flips up the shades on her sunglasses. She looks intently at her visitors.

"You don't know what it's like," Brill says, asking again if her hair looks all right. "That door doesn't open. Do you realize I haven't talked to anyone for a week?"

The door has become both Brill's friend and enemy, a symbol of a narrowing portal to the outside world and a gateway to precious few human contacts. Usually, she says, the door only opens to let her out, for brief daily walks around her Piedmont neighborhood.

"The trees are blossoming, and I can store that in my mind," she says.

Perhaps more comforting than the company of the local flora are visits from Oakland's Home For Jewish Parents' Meals on Wheels program, which constitute Brill's central interaction with other people.

When the door opens, a kosher, hearty meal of kasha varnishkas or baked chicken isn't the only thing Brill lets in.

"It's not just food. It's a connection," says Terry Messner, coordinator of the Jewish Home's meal delivery program. "It's a hug or a touch they don't get when they're alone."

Messner and five volunteers deliver food to 35 seniors throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties who pay $7 a meal. After 10 years with the 20 year-old program, Messner has become adept at subtly delivering companionship along with nutrition.

She and her dog Ripley make their rounds, dropping off meals and checking up on seniors. Messner often ends up helping them with phone calls, errands or mail. In the process, she always manages to make physical contact, touching a shoulder or arm when possible, kissing a cheek.

After dropping off a hot meal to Brill, she makes her way to Dorothy Stewart's shady street.

"I'm kind of slow motion," jokes Stewart, 90, as she greets Messner with a kiss and drops the meal off in her kitchen. "This looks mighty good, Terry. You're too good."

Stewart has developed a friendship with Messner over the seven years she's been using Meals On Wheels.

Sitting in her rocking chair, she grips a cane in her hand and says, "Terry's my love, she keeps me going."

Responds Messner, "Her appreciation keeps me going."

Like many of the meal recipients, Stewart was referred to the program by a nurse who noticed that she wasn't eating properly at home.

"When you live alone and cook for one, it's easy to slide by a meal. This way, I have it," says Stewart, with an accent betraying her Memphis roots.

For some of the seniors in the program, home meal delivery staves off the necessity of moving into a convalescent home. For Betty Sherman, 85, a fall in 1994 left her with hip problems and difficulties caring for herself in her Berkeley home.

"I knew I needed help," says Sherman — who now volunteers for several organizations including Berkeley's Congregation Beth El. "I wanted to stay here and be comfortable, make a better recovery."

With good meals delivered to the doorstep, "you heal much faster, surrounded by your own things," says Messner.

Sherman sits in her spacious living room, among quaint Jewish statuettes, framed art painted by friends and photos of family members. She says she's grateful to be there, grateful for the five days of cooked meals that allow her to remain largely independent.

After visiting with Sherman for awhile, Messner straps Ripley into the back of her pick-up to head home for the day.

After a decade with the Meals on Wheels program, she feels a deep connection to the people she meets.

"I like to translate myself into other people. If I was in that situation, how would I want to be treated?" she says. "I like to make it as pleasant and joyful as possible."

Whether it's a smile, a hand on the shoulder or a casual inquiry about phone bills or health problems, Messner's theory seems to work. Seniors along her route insist that the good will she and her volunteers deliver is as essential for their survival as baked blintzes or rice pilaf.

Says Stewart, "It means so much."