As part of an ongoing series– How Are They Doing Today – we’re launching this year, I wanted to follow up with some of the Meals on Wheels seniors who have graciously shared their stories with me over the years. While everyone I’ve talked to comes from different walks of life and experiences, one thing certainly unites them all: Meals on Wheels has changed their lives. The first story in this series is about Leia, who turns 69 this year. She has been receiving our home-delivered meals since 2015.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Leia in her modest apartment on the outer edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco. Leia shared how, in the late 90s, she was on top of the world, holding a coveted job as an information cyber security executive advising C-suite personnel from Napster and StubHub.
In 2000, the job she loved came to an abrupt end when she became paralyzed after falling on the sidewalk near her home. After three years in a rehabilitation hospital and ongoing physical therapy for her fractured spine and neck, she was able to return to her third-floor apartment with the use of a cane and wheelchair. However, she returned to a stark reality — she could no longer work and provide for herself. Leia had a roof over her head, but little else other than a mountain of medical bills and debt, leaving her with a paltry $100 to live on each month.
“It took me a while to figure out what services could be available for someone like me,” Leia explained back then. “I would go days without having enough food to eat, or any food in my refrigerator; I would just drink water to feel full and keep my mind off of being hungry.”
Meals on Wheels Check-Ins Save lives
Since 2015, Leia has been receiving 14 Meals on Wheels meals weekly delivered to her apartment. She says that the food helps her stay healthy but equally important, the visits and check-ins from the Meals on Wheels drivers help her “feel like she is a part of the community.”
The spinal injuries make Lea prone to seizures – something her doctors at UCSF are getting under control with medications. She told me of a frightening experience that happened sometime before 2019, where she suffered a seizure that was so strong it knocked her out of bed onto the floor, and unable to move or call for help.
“I just laid there on the floor for hours – first watching the sun go down and then come back up,” she said.
At the time, she didn’t own a cell phone, only a landline which was perched on a table near her bed. She tried to grab it to call for help but ended up yanking the cord out of the wall. Leia recounts that she continued to lay there, and another day went by.
“I finally thought that today is when Meals on Wheels will come by,” she explains. “And they did – first knocking, and then coming in (fortunately her door was unlocked) once they heard me yell for help. “They [Meals on Wheels] came in and immediately called 911.”
Isolation Heightened by the Pandemic
During the pandemic years of 2020 through the middle of 2023, sheltering in place, social distancing, and quarantining became regular parts of our daily lives. For many homebound seniors like Leia, the pandemic deepened their isolation from the outside world.
In 2022, I spoke with Leia via Zoom to see how she was doing through all the pandemic chaos. Despite the ability to connect and see others via computer cameras, Leia said she still felt alone. The knock on the door from her Meals on Wheels driver was reassuring, even if they couldn’t visit for long due to pandemic safety protocols. During those years, Leia kept herself busy with reading and taking 5:00 am walks outside as part of her ongoing physical therapy to avoid large crowds of people and limit her exposure to COVID-19.
City-mandated safety protocols were lifted during the late summer of 2023, allowing our drivers to do more in-person visits, including helping Leia put her heavy bags of meals into her refrigerator and make sure she was doing ok.
In January of this year, I contacted Leia to see if she was up for a visit. She was, indeed!
She looked wonderful wearing a beautiful housecoat ensemble. We sat down near the only window in her living room, and I asked her how she was doing since we last spoke on Zoom in 2022.
“It’s nice to see each other after the plague,” she quipped. “It’s been like being in solitary confinement or something. I know now that when I go out, I feel a little agoraphobic because I was alone for so long.”
She welcomes me into her living room where a rather large rack of clothing is prominently on display. Among the pieces are business suits from Chanel, and Saint Laurent.
“I used to go to trunk shows in New York,” Leia explains and reminds me that she also modeled back in the day. “I never paid full price for anything; much of this was worn once or twice by models.”
We sit down to chat and I ask her how she’s doing. She tells me that during COVID, the Meals on Wheels delivery people were her real and only contact.
“They were the people that I saw twice a week,” she says with a smile. “And if it weren’t for them, I think I’d have been just like, you know, turned into Miss Havisham (a Dickens character from Great Expectations). It was really nobody and nothing just online contacts. But then there was Meals on Wheels twice a week checking in on me.”
These days, Leia keeps herself busy by researching subject matter for a podcast about cybercrime. She’s named it Malicious Mind, and she’s looking to launch fully in March. Here’s a sneak peek at episode 1 about Napster.
We ended our visit together with a brief trip to her kitchen. She opened her freezer to show me some of the bundle of meals that had arrived earlier that day – beef chili and corn chips, bacon and vegetable omelet, black beans and brown rice, and a French onion soup. You’re not going to find that [menu selection] in any other city to have a service for people that are elderly,” she tells me. “I mean, it’s San Francisco and we are a foodie city so you have somehow found chefs that do that for us.”