Vital vittles: Volunteers like (from left) Shirley Leadbeatter, Robert Raison, Walter Brooker, and Cynthia Brown are becoming scarce, while demand for services is set to grow.
Vital vittles: Volunteers like (from left) Shirley Leadbeatter, Robert Raison, Walter Brooker, and Cynthia Brown are becoming scarce, while demand for services is set to grow. Cathy Adams

Meals on Wheels vital to region

THE viability of health services on the Northern Rivers rests on the shoulders – and passenger seats – of people like Kathy Eames.

Ms Eames runs the Lismore/Alstonville Meals on Wheels service from the Goonellabah Community Centre, providing a service that helps keep about 100 people, mostly elderly, living happily in their homes and out of hospital.

That puts services like Ms Eames’ at centre stage as the Northern Rivers looks towards the health of its residents while the region’s population explodes between now and 2036.

State Government figures forecast the Northern Rivers’ population will grow, mostly on the coastal strip, by about 70,000 people over the next 26 years.

However, potentially of more concern, is the way that population will age.

The Government’s figures predict the number of people aged 65 or older will more than double, and in some cases nearly treble, by 2031, based on 2001 figures.

That ups the pressure on government agencies to find ways to help people continue to live in their own homes for as long as possible and, in so doing, avoid taking up valuable bed space in hospitals and aged care facilities.

That’s something Meals on Wheels has already been doing for years.

“Our ethos or mission statement has always been (to) ... assist people with a nutritionally balanced service to assist people to stay in their homes for as long as possible,” Ms Eames said.

Traditionally that has meant scores of volunteers driving out daily from the service’s headquarters to deliver hot meals to people unable to prepare meals for themselves.

However, that’s becoming a greater challenge too.

Organisations such as Meals on Wheels have been lamenting for years the lack of volunteers lining up to help with the service, particularly compared to the number available when the service began in Melbourne in the early 1950s.

Part of the issue has been painted as a demographic shift, with today’s youth seen as more inclined to volunteer for cause-based organisations, such as Greenpeace, or project-based work, such as music festivals.

That would be fine, but according to Ms Eames, today’s new retirees aren’t turning up to help out either – even though they may one day need the service.

That means Meals on Wheels has had to look to new models to continue providing its service. A local corporate sponsorship arrangement has worked wonders.

Instead of offering cash, a group of local companies have instead been asked to offer one of their workers, once a month for about 90 minutes, to help deliver meals.

At present the service was comfortably providing meals for about 120 people between Lismore and Alstonville and could comfortably lift that number to 200.

Beyond that, the service would have to look at other strategies, such as providing a selection of frozen meals once a week instead of hot meals daily.

Once that no longer worked, the next step would be to appeal for government funding so it could pay people to deliver meals.

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