For one pensioner it means a sandwich for supper, and now even the alternative of a lunch club meal is threatened as the funding dries up. Tom Foot and Georgia Graham investigate
Published: January 19, 2012
ELDERLY people living on their own are being offered two weeks worth of frozen food to heat up in microwaves as a replacement for the axed meals-on-wheels service.
The new system has been attacked, with claims that the vulnerable are being left to care for themselves.
The Town Hall terminated its £375,000-a-year meals-on-wheels contract with supplier Fresh CM in December, blaming a cut in money from the government for the decision.
Social care chiefs, however, maintained that a “modernised” system – where people bought their own meals from the supermarket or had frozen meals delivered to their homes each fortnight – would be an improvement.
But those who have spoken to the New Journal say they are feeling forgotten and are missing out on a balanced diet.
Jacky Aubertin, 68, has eaten just three hot meals since the system changed on December 1. She said no one had come to visit her in her home in Judd Street, King’s Cross.
“I’ve gone back to what I used to do when my occupational therapist got so angry all those years ago – a sandwich for lunch and a sandwich for supper,” she said. “I’m appalled at what they are doing. They did all this without the advice of GPs. It was their own assessment. A lot of people who qualified medically were struck off. Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s legal.”
The council has a statutory duty to ensure that disabled and elderly people and those suffering mental health difficulties have meals.
Ms Aubertin, who had polio as a child, had been receiving hot meals every day from Camden Council for 28 years.
She has opted not to buy a fortnight’s frozen meals from a private delivery service because she is not comfortable using a microwave.
“I’m more likely to fry the cat’s tail in one of those,” she said. “The council told me if I didn’t accept the frozen meal delivery service there was nothing they could do for me. Warming up a meal is the problem I had in the first place. They were asking me to take back the problem I already had.”
A Camden council spokeswoman said: “The client in question was assessed and declined any practical support on a number of occasions and has consistently stated that she wishes to make her own arrangements."
The council has bought four of the former meals on wheels clients a microwave, she added.
In May last year, shortly before the decision was taken to cut the service, trade union Unison raised concerns that 75 fewer meals-on-wheels clients were receiving the service compared with the previous January.
Botanist Eileen Wilmott cares for an 88-year-old man with dementia who lives in her road in Dartmouth Park.
She said he used to enjoy fresh salads that came to his home every day, adding: “Peter loved the salads. They are more nutritious than frozen meals and he could eat them whenever he liked as they don’t have to be heated up.
“Peter cannot use a microwave oven. I have tried to show him how to. They want to send round 14 frozen meals once a fortnight, but that’s no use for Peter.”
In June last year, Camden’s Labour social services chief Councillor Pat Callaghan said 206 people were using the Fresh CM service daily – compared to 303 in June 2008.
The numbers at that time joining the service were fewer than the numbers leaving on a monthly basis, the councillor warned.
Following a programme of reassessments, there were just 133 recipients in December when the contract was terminated.
Cllr Callaghan said at the time: “This can be attributed to the quality and variety of the meals on offer. Far from [people] being alone, the council will arrange for carers. Any suggestion that a vital early-warning system will be lost is frankly scaremongering of the worst kind.”
On Tuesday, she said: “There was a sharp drop-off of people ordering meals-on-wheels and we had to look into that – the feedback came back that people like to eat when they want to eat not when someone turns up with a hot meal at a specific time.
“Our workers were asked to assess everyone who had meals delivered and if they fell into the critical and substantial bracket they would still have someone to heat up the meal for them and the carer would stay for 20 or 30 minutes and talk to them.”
She added: “It provoked a lot of concern at the time and I sent a letter to the CNJ saying this is why we did it but if you feel you haven’t been assessed correctly to please get in touch. How many responses do you think I got? None.”
The contract with Fresh CM began in June 2008. In December, all 25 delivery staff, mainly former Town Hall employees, were made redundant.
Camden’s hot meal delivery service had cost the council £371,000 a year to run. Last year, the Town Hall paid £29,000 in addition to the contract value for people who could not afford the £3 that each meal cost.
Sian Porter, consultant dietician and spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, said: “If you are not getting nutrients, you become malnourished – you can look okay on outside, but it’s happening on the inside.
She added: “If you don’t use a microwave and have to switch on an oven for one person, then fuel poverty becomes an issue. The oven has to be on for quite a while. Something like this – it’s like a dropping a stone in a pond.”
THURSDAY lunchtimes are all abuzz at Marchmont Community Centre in Bloomsbury. Two dozen over-60s are sitting down to a meal cooked freshly by the in-house chef.
Well balanced and homely, the meals – from fish curry to roast dinners – cost pensioners just £3.10 – or £15.50 a week – and are, until March, subsidised by Camden Council.
Since meals-on-wheels were axed in Camden, getting a hot, home-cooked meal as an elderly person has become increasingly hard. Along with nearby Age Concern, Marchmont is now the only place in Bloomsbury where elderly people who struggle to cook for themselves can get a hot meal they don’t have to heat up from frozen in a microwave.
The council’s website lists 14 regular lunch clubs taking place daily from Highgate to Holborn but some of their days could be numbered after funding dries up in March.
Maggie Morgan, who runs the elderly service at Marchmont, warned that the cost of meals would increase as funding is withdrawn, possibly putting them out of the reach of some people.
“That generation have never learnt to throw together a quick meal of pasta or even a baked potato with beans,” she said.
“To them, while not exactly meat and two veg, cooking dinner involves quite a lot of effort. They don’t have our same experience of convenience food.
“Some of these people – the widows and widowers especially – are living on their own for the first time in their lives. People talk about teaching people to cook and be self-sufficient but the last thing a man in his 70s or 80s who has not cooked in his life is going to do is learn to cook at this stage.
“More worrying, if you have dementia sometimes you won’t remember if you have eaten already, let alone how to use an oven or microwave to heat up a meal from the freezer if they do remember they are supposed to eat it in the first place.”
Harvey Bass, 62, from Tonbridge Street, started coming to Marchmont lunch club four months ago when he was in the middle of a downward spiral of depression and realised he was not feeding himself properly. He credits the regular lunches – and conversations he has over the dinner table – with turning his depression around.
“It got to the point when I was depressed, where I was chopping up the food, cooking it all and it took as much as an hour, and then I was just sitting down and eating it all by myself,” Mr Bass said. “There didn't seem any point to it.
“The thing is, it’s also really expensive to cook this stuff. It’s amazing this menu – the soy chicken with steamed rice yesterday was wonderful, really. I would be happy with any food and just come for the company but she [the chef] is a brilliant cook.”
Mr Bass has worked tirelessly, campaigning on issues in King’s Cross, where he has lived for 31 years, and winning a New Journal Unsung Hero award in 1998.
He said: “Times have changed in London for an older person. It is a much harder place to live in. It’s much more lonely and difficult and people get forgotten.”
Another lunch club regular, Peter Smart, added: “David Cameron keeps talking about the Big Society. What is it if not this club? But it all costs money and where is that money coming from? They are going to charge us for it and call it the Big Society.”
Camden’s Labour social services chief Councillor Pat Callaghan said tough spending restrictions have been placed on the council by central government cuts. “Camden’s got the problems of London but higher because we are so densely populated,” she added. “Obviously, older people don’t have money to splurge on lunching in restaurants so we tried in a previous life to provide holistic care for every level of need but central government cuts mean we simply can’t do that any more.
“In Camden, we have spent £7million on preventative measures. That is twice as much as any other London borough and we were proud to do that because we believe that’s what we should do, but with government cuts that cut the knees off us we have been forced to look at every single department.”