Service for vulnerable Herts pensioners sees demand soar by 500% amid coronavirus lockdown

PUBLISHED: 12:30 23 April 2020

A HILS driver delivers a meal to a customer.

A HILS driver delivers a meal to a customer.

PETER CZIBORRA / HILS

Demand skyrockets for Herts meals on wheels as coronavirus lockdown leaves vulnerable OAPs stuck indoors.

Margarent Biddlecombe, 97, said her HILS delivery driver was sometimes the only person she saw all day.Margarent Biddlecombe, 97, said her HILS delivery driver was sometimes the only person she saw all day.

Between January 1 and April 21 this year, 97-year-old Margaret Biddlecombe has left her home in Welwyn Garden City twice - both times for hospital appointments.

She was due to receive a hip operation at the end of March, but her appointment never materialised, she presumes because of coronavirus. In the meantime, she cannot walk more than a few steps.

“I love my garden, but I can’t go out there,” she said. “I can just about put one foot in front of the other and that’s very painful.”

Government guidance says Margaret must isolate until June for her own safety. Her granddaughter, a nurse, pops around to check in on her. But many days, the only human being she sees is the delivery driver from her meals on wheels service, Hertfordshire Independent Living Service (HILS).

HILS said it had added extra delivery routes and taken on 100 volunteers to help cope with unprecedented demand.HILS said it had added extra delivery routes and taken on 100 volunteers to help cope with unprecedented demand.

“They are so friendly, and they always ask questions,” said Margaret. “They are very caring.”

Margaret’s meals have been arriving an hour later than they used to. The drivers say this is due to unprecedented demand.

“They’ve told me they’ve got 37 on this round now – about 17 or 18 more than a few weeks ago,” she said. “People can’t get their meals from cafes anymore.”

As team leader for the St Albans area, Amber Dalton usually supervises 15 delivery routes, including Margaret’s. Amid coronavirus, it has risen to 17. In an average month, she will receive 15 or 20 new referrals. In March, she received 89.

Amber Dalton, St Albans community team leader, said the orst part of lockdown was not being able to spend quality time with customers.Amber Dalton, St Albans community team leader, said the orst part of lockdown was not being able to spend quality time with customers.

Amber usually works seven hours a day, five days a week. Since the pandemic took hold, it’s been more like nine hours a day, six days a week.

“Everyone has pulled together and is helping out where they can,” she said. “Some of the drivers had holiday booked but they cancelled it to come in. Staff morale has been absolutely amazing.”

Before coronavirus, HILS delivered 1,400 meals per day across the county. It’s now up to 1,800.

“Bear in mind that the 1,400 usually include lunch clubs where we deliver a large batch,” said business strategy and programmes manager Lucy Gallard. “Those have all closed, so you’d imagine the number of meals would drop. The increase has been so big that it’s made up that shortfall and grown to a record level.”

HILS said drivers were avoiding direct contact with customers where possible, due to coronavirus social distancing rules.HILS said drivers were avoiding direct contact with customers where possible, due to coronavirus social distancing rules.

Staff have been working extra shifts to meet demand, said director of services Katherine Marwood.

“Because of lockdown, people don’t have any other plans,” she said. “They care about their clients very much and worry about them on their days off.”

More than 100 volunteers have also signed up to help ease the load. They are taking 10 or 12 meals per route, “so our main staff are not under as much pressure”, said Katherine.

The hardest change, said Amber, is not being able to get close to or spend time with clients.

HILS director of services Katherine Marwood said the group might have to dip into its reserves and would appreciate donations.HILS director of services Katherine Marwood said the group might have to dip into its reserves and would appreciate donations.

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“It is difficult because it goes against the very ethic of what we are about,” she said. “It’s hard on a lot of our drivers. They deliver to these people five to seven days a week. They’ve built up a relationship and now they can’t spend a little bit of time with them.”

Welfare checks by the delivery staff are a key part of the service, said Katherine.

“Unfortunately, we do come across people who have had a fall or are not well,” she explained. “We didn’t want to let all of that go because of coronavirus. It would be terrible if we just left a meal on somebody’s doorstep and didn’t realise they were on the floor inside, having had a fall or a stroke or something.”

Some service users are being checked on via telephone. Others give a thumbs up through the window or come to the door but maintain distance.

It isn’t only the meals which have seen demand soar. HILS also delivers emergency food packs to people discharged from hospital or experiencing financial difficulties. It calls the service its “foodbank on wheels”. It usually receives three referrals a day. Its peak since covid-19 hit is 47 in a day.

Hertfordshire County Council helps pay for the meals on wheels service and emergency food packs, but other services are pushing up costs. Physical activity classes, dementia help and an advocacy service, among others, being delivered by phone or by delivery of thousands of information packs. HILS is also sending games and puzzles to its service users, to occupy them during lockdown.

The charity is not yet sure how far it will have to dip into its reserves, said Katherine.

“We have had some fantastic donations and obviously we would really welcome more,” she said. “If people feel moved to donate, we would be very grateful.”

Donations can be made at www.hertsindependentliving.org.

SUPPORTERS LAUNCH FUNDRAISER

Supporters have launched a fundraising appeal to help support HILS through the covid-19 pandemic.

The Friends of the Jubilee Centre – a community centre run by HILS – aim to raise £10,000 to cover the cost of distributing thousands of information and activity packs to vulnerable pensioners.

The packs include advice on exercise in isolation, how to maintain good nutrition and hydration, how to cope with dementia and how to spot fraudsters preying on OAPs during the lockdown.

Chairman Annie Stevenson said HILS was “stretching every sinew” to care for OAPs during the pandemic, adding: “It would be amazing for them to receive some of the adulation that NHS workers get.”

To donate, visit: https://tinyurl.com/HILSfundraiser


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