The person Keith Orchard sees most often is Fai Mathews, who comes by his small Seattle apartment every week. She’s always cheery and always asks how things are going.

Mathews is a Meals on Wheels driver, and knows that many of her 2,258 elderly clients spend much of their time alone. Seven out of 10 live by themselves.

“How you doin’?” she asks, and Orchard answers that it’s going OK. It’s not in-depth talk, but it’s a little bit of socialization. “Lots of love,” says Mathews.

Around this time of year, you see the TV commercials showing families getting together: grandma, grandpa, the adult children, the precocious grandchildren, a soft glow of Christmas lights around a bountiful dinner table. It’s far from the universal story — and Mathews knows it.

Orchard, 69, didn’t get out on Christmas. His life is modest. A subsidized Seattle Housing Authority home. A monthly income around $1,200, he says, when combining Social Security and veterans’ benefits from his 1968-71 stint in the Marine Corps, which included a Vietnam tour. In his later working life, Orchard did clerical work. A brother and sister live in the area, but he doesn’t see them too often.

Keith Orchard opens his door to Fai Mathews, a Meals on Wheels driver. Orchard was in the Marine Corps, went to Vietnam and worked for many years. Getting around is harder now. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Keith Orchard opens his door to Fai Mathews, a Meals on Wheels driver. Orchard was in the Marine Corps, went to Vietnam and worked for many years. Getting around is harder now. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Meals on Wheels and Mathews are bright spots, offering a quick check-in and low-cost food for those over 60. In King County this year, the program knocked on a lot of doors like Orchard’s delivering more than 422,000 meals. The program is managed by Sound Generations, formerly known as Senior Services, the largest provider of comprehensive services for aging adults and their families.

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$25: Ensures a homebound older adult has five nutritious meals delivered by a Meals on Wheels driver.

$50: Provides minor home repairs and safety installations for six low-income older adults so they can remain safe in their homes.

$100: Provides 25 made-from-scratch lunches for older adults in the Community Dining Program.

In the U.S., about 28% of older adults, or 13.8 million people, live alone, according to an April 2019 report by the National Institute on Aging. The title of the report: “Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks.”

That’s why Mathews and other Meals on Wheels drivers offer more than just nutrition. We’re social creatures.

“They’re special to me, you know?” says Mathews, 66, who’s been delivering for Meals on Wheels for 12 years. “I listen to them. If they’re having a hard time, I give them a hug.”

Fai Mathews loads her van with food she will be delivering. She does more than drop off groceries and prepared meals. She gets to know the people on her route. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Fai Mathews loads her van with food she will be delivering. She does more than drop off groceries and prepared meals. She gets to know the people on her route. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

On this day, Mathews brings over a couple loaves of bread, peanuts, a carton of eggs, a mixed salad pack, seven bananas, a quart of milk and cottage cheese, as part of Sound Generations’ “Mobile Market” that for no delivery fee, delivers groceries to homebound elders at competitive prices. The groceries add up to $20.75.

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To get the best prices, the agency looks for weekly deals from grocers, and shops at a variety of places including Smart Foodservice Warehouse Stores (formerly the Cash and Carry that catered to restaurants) and Costco.

Sometimes Orchard chooses from over two dozen microwaveable meals available, marked in various categories such as vegetarian (cheesy vegetable bake) or low sodium (baked fish).

The suggested donation is $5 per meal, but the drivers never ask clients for money. They know the situation many are in. The agency says for a $5 meal, the average donation is 37 cents.

Half the clients are below the poverty line, according to the agency. That’s $12,752 for an individual under age 65, and $11,756 for someone 65 or older.

The program has 200 people on the waiting list.

Mathews’ next stop is Cabrini Senior Housing, where Asefa Tessema lives. He says he’s either 72 or 79, explaining that records in his native Ethiopia weren’t accurate.

As Asefa Tessema, left, watches, Fai Mathews, a  driver for Meals on Wheels, puts prepared meals into the freezer in his Seattle home. At center is Sara Alemeseged, who comes by to help Tessma. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
As Asefa Tessema, left, watches, Fai Mathews, a driver for Meals on Wheels, puts prepared meals into the freezer in his Seattle home. At center is Sara Alemeseged, who comes by to help Tessma. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Tessema came to the U.S. in 2013 and is still seeking asylum. He was brought here by his daughter, who lives in Seattle, he says, but these days has little contact with her.

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“I was a political prisoner,” he says, explaining that in Ethiopia he was a high school administrator and spent a decade in jail because of his political beliefs. Ethiopia is a country that has been racked by ethnic strife. Tessema says that if he returned, “They’d kill me.”

Mathews then heads for a condo building on Eighth Avenue, where Helen Rekow, 93, and her late husband, Lloyd Rekow, bought a unit in 1989. He repaired and rebuilt planes; she was a legal secretary.

While on her rounds, Fai Mathews, right, shares a hug with Helen Rekow. Mathews delivers food to Rekow, but the two also talk about about the city, their health and life. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
While on her rounds, Fai Mathews, right, shares a hug with Helen Rekow. Mathews delivers food to Rekow, but the two also talk about about the city, their health and life. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

They had no children. Rekow has no relatives in the immediate area.

She and Mathews spend a bit of time chatting, about life, illnesses, getting older.

Rekow says a scan showed she has lung cancer.

Mathews commiserates. This year she had surgery for breast cancer. She only took a week off from Meals on Wheels. She missed helping her clients, she says.

“I have to take this pill every day for five years,” Mathews tells Rekow about her post-surgery treatment.

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Rekow says, “If we don’t go through the tough things in life, you don’t know how to enjoy the good things.”

They keep chatting, about things such as the changing Seattle that used to have all those traditional department stores, the kind of talk two longtime residents can have. Mathews is a 1971 Roosevelt High grad. Rekow came here in 1959 from Iowa.

Some social service jobs can lead to burnout.

But not for Mathews.

“They worked all their lives and given to others,” she says about her clients. “Now it’s time for others to give back.”