Wisconsin Meals On Wheels program shows it’s far more than a meal
SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Kelly Heyn went on her first Meals On Wheels delivery with her daughter when she was just old enough to tag along. That daughter is in college now and Heyn is CEO.
She still goes out on deliveries, sometimes in the hybrid a supporter donated to the cause.
“If you want to stay in your own home and not in the hospital, then you have to pay attention,” Heyn told one of her clients.
Most routes include eight to 14 people to keep them short for volunteers taking time out of their work day. When Heyn steps in to help, it’s usually for a special group of clients.
“We can feed somebody for a year for the cost of them being in a nursing home for two weeks,” Heyn said. “It is cost effective for people to remain in their own homes.”
About 86 percent of people served by Fresh Meals On Wheels of Sheboygan County are linked to the area’s strong manufacturing roots. Heyn said that blue-collar community needs a hand, but the people she’s taking meals to are congestive heart failure patients.
“These are the people who I grew up with. I am from this community forever and ever,” Heyn said. “I want them to be well and have the best we can possibly give them.”
The nonprofit organization has partnered with Aurora Healthcare in the area for a pilot program. Starting last May, about 20 patients who have been hospitalized with heart failure receive free meals from the program every day. Each day, the staff member who takes the food to those individuals is also asking them questions related to their symptoms. Those questions gauge whether those patients need medical attention with the goal of keeping them out of the hospital.
Aurora’s Manager of Case Management Diane Schuh says it’s working. In the 30 days that those patients are monitored, their hospital readmission rate is about 5 percent lower than the average for Medicare users.
The diet is one factor. Schuh says the patients learn a lot about what they should and should not eat with the help of the nutritionist-planned meals. But Schuh says the delivery and the check-in is just as important.
“The more people that can help support you, can hear from what has been told is what to watch, and then help you to do that, the better chance of success,” Schuh said. “Again, that’s our mission. Helping people live well.”
The pilot program with Aurora led to Sheboygan County’s Meals On Wheels to participate in a national study. Out of thousands of chapters across the country, Heyn’s program was one of just six Meals On Wheels to be accepted into that More Than A Meal study. That research is out to prove statistically what Heyn and her staff already see every day: that food deliveries make a difference in the health of their elderly clients.
“It’s difficult when people hear there’s no proof that Meals On Wheels works, and we’ve had that proof out there over and over again,” Heyn said.
“This is a physical, personal connection that they have with the person who’s delivering that meal and asking them how they’re doing,” Schuh said.
Schuh says especially after a stressful hospital stay, patients are overwhelmed with information and recommendations from doctors and caregivers. She’s says it takes two weeks for those people to truly understand what they need to do to stay at home and healthy.
While Heyn is asking more questions to her clients, she’s hearing more of them as well. A number of them are wondering about the organization’s future funding after hearing President Donald Trump wants to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from federal grant programs and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Meals On Wheels of Sheboygan County is funded entirely by donations, but Heyn said they may have to fill the void left by other non-profits that rely on federal money.
“I worry about other communities. I worry about us, how we’re going to handle the fundraising, the increased fundraising that may well be necessary,” Heyn said.
In the meantime, Heyn and her staff are waiting on the next phase of the “More Than A Meal” study. That next part will incorporate more technology in the delivery process to track clients’ preferences and medical history.
Schuh is looking forward to possibly expanding the current partnership to include diagnoses outside of congestive heart failure, especially because the response has been so positive so far.
“They felt so connected and felt cared for, and they thought that was really impactful,” Schuh said.
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