‘It helps me stay living on my own and not in a home’

Surviving or thriving: Carlow's Meals on Wheels. Tell us about your community health initiatives...


Part one of our ‘Surviving or Thriving’ series looks at innovative community health projects. Part one: Carlow's Meals on Wheels.     

The kitchen workers at Carlow’s St Catherine’s Community Centre are busy filling containers with freshly cooked vegetables, potatoes and slices of roast turkey with gravy. Portions of bakewell tart with custard are set out in separate containers for dessert.

The daily task of feeding up to 100 people for the Meals on Wheels service runs like clockwork and no one seems too concerned about the intrusion of a journalist and photographer at the busiest point of their morning.

About 12,000 people gets Meals on Wheels throughout Ireland through HSE- run or community-led services. The Meals on Wheels service at St Catherine’s has come a long way from its humble beginning in a bike shed at the back of a former schoolhouse 30 years ago to its home in a purpose-built kitchen since 2002. Its efforts were acknowledged in May by an award from Age Friendly Ireland, the organisation that highlights efforts made for older people in communities across Ireland.

“It’s not just the nutritional value of the food. It’s the social contact for people. There’s compassion there,” says Patricia Morrin-Deay, the chef at St Catherine’s. She explains how the volunteer drivers informally check up on the recipients when delivering their meals. “If a volunteer doesn’t get a reply, we’ll phone their next of kin. We’ve even called the gardaí sometimes if we’re worried about someone.”

The service takes referrals from the public health nurse. Specific requirements for people on high protein diets or those with diabetes, coeliac disease or other health conditions are catered for. Meals range from stews to roast beef or turkey to fish and cold meats and salads in the summer months. The desserts are made in the kitchen at St Catherine’s.

“Our service is worked on a needs basis for older people, people with disabilities or someone home from hospital after an operation. We offer meals to the person and the carer too,” says Edel Keogh, senior community worker for older people at St Catherine’s.

“It helps me stay living on my own. I really would hate to go into a home. I like having all my things around me,” says one older person. People pay €5 for a main course and dessert or €3.50 for a half-portion main course and dessert. The HSE funds the service but St Catherine’s is responsible for managing its own budgets.


Volunteers are a key component of the operation with two volunteers helping kitchen staff and eight volunteer drivers each day. Kay Walsh has been a kitchen volunteer for about 15 years. “My husband got sick and used Meals on Wheels. After he died in 2001, I decided I’d come and help and I’ve been here ever since.”

Once the food is vacuum-packed in heatproof individual containers (which can be re-heated in a cooker or in a microwave) and date-stamped (some people order three main meals on a Friday to get them through the weekend), it is placed in a holding unit until the drivers arrive. Delivering the food when it’s still hot is crucial and drivers don’t delay when they come to collect their deliveries.

Jim and Ruth Carthy are among the first drivers to arrive. Sprightly 70-somethings, they have been sharing the responsibility of delivering meals for several years with Ruth giving directions and taking the money while Jim drives and hands out the meals. “Life swings in roundabouts. If I ever need the service, I know it will be there for me,” says Jim.

Phyllis Mullarkey is another volunteer driver. “When I retired from running a business, I decided to volunteer. You get to know the people you deliver to and they are very grateful. It’s easy to get your own breakfast and tea but with Meals on Wheels, you know you are getting one good meal a day and it saves on shopping,” she says.

The service at St Catherine’s has developed a self-assessment questionnaire. This tool is now available free to all of the Meals on Wheels services in Ireland.

“Everyone had a say in what our standards would look like. We hope other Meals on Wheels services will use it as a resource,” says Niall Morris, director of services at St Catherine’s.

The questionnaire allows a Meals on Wheels service to look at its service in terms of nutrition, staff, volunteers, the needs of those provided with meals and the social role of the service.

What’s in your area?

We want to hear from readers about community projects in your area. Keep your accounts to a maximum of 250 words and we will publish a selection of your responses. Tweet @IT_HealthPlus, find Irish Times Health on Facebook or email health@irishtimes.com

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