National study to rejuvenate Meals on Wheels

Published 02 August 2010

mealswheelsResearchers conducting the first national study of Meals on Wheels in Australia are aiming to develop a business model that will rejuvenate an organisation seeking a new generation of volunteers.

The two principal researchers on the Commonwealth-funded project are Associate Professor Melanie Oppenheimer from the University of New England, a social historian and leading authority on volunteering, and Professor Jeni Warburton from La Trobe University, an internationally recognised researcher on health and social issues related to ageing.

The three-year study, co-funded by Meals on Wheels itself, is titled “Meals on Wheels: building towards a new social experiment for our times”. “It involves both a national study and international comparisons to come up with a responsive and sustainable business model,” Dr Oppenheimer explained.

“Meals on Wheels plays a really important role in maintaining older people and people with disabilities in their own homes,” she said. “But it needs an available supply of volunteers, as its current volunteers are becoming increasingly elderly and unable to continue.”

There are 750 Meals on Wheels organisations throughout Australia, involving 80,000 volunteers and serving 50,000 clients. “As more and more people live longer – well into their 80s and 90s – there is a growing need for community services that support people at home,” Professor Warburton said. “It’s imperative that volunteer-based organisations such as Meals on Wheels innovate to continue to deliver essential community services in a sustainable and cost-effective way.”

“And while Meals on Wheels provides vital nutrition for frail older people and those with disabilities,” she added, “it also serves an important social function. This dimension is really crucial, as there is a growing awareness of the impact of social isolation on older people’s health and wellbeing.”

As well as targeting the generation of “baby boomers” now leaving full-time employment, the search for volunteers under any new business model could include adolescents and young adults. “I think there’s a bit of a renaissance in junior volunteering – and there’s no reason why senior school students and university students couldn’t do it,” Dr Oppenheimer said.

Dr Oppenheimer is herself a Meals on Wheels volunteer, delivering meals in her home town of Walcha on the Northern Tablelands. In Walcha, she said, the rosters are largely filled by local community organisations such as the CWA and the Anglican Guild. “Maybe that’s a model that could be adopted generally,” she suggested. “There’s a wide range of models, however, and we’ll be making our recommendations after looking around the country – and overseas – at the way ‘meals on wheels’ are delivered.”

“Meals on Wheels is doing well in some parts of Australia, and not so well in others,” Dr Oppenheimer said. “Generally, you find more volunteers in regional areas than in the cities. And funding arrangements differ from State to State: while there is now reasonable funding from the Commonwealth Government, this is supplemented in some States by the State governments and in others by local government.

“In order to get a broad overview, we’ll look at the situation in each State – getting a picture of those States, regions and cities that are struggling, and visiting key areas for interviews with volunteers and managers. Then we’ll go overseas to do comparisons with Meals on Wheels counterparts in the UK, Ireland, Canada and Japan.”

“Perhaps Tony Abbott’s promise last week to Make 2012 the ‘Year of Meals on Wheels’ if the Coalition wins the 2010 federal election is a sign that there’s increasing awareness in Canberra of the importance of such voluntary organisations to Australian society,” Dr Oppenheimer said.

The researchers are hoping that some of their findings and recommendations could apply to other community organisations that rely on volunteers.

Clicking on the image displayed here reveals a photograph, taken in the Armidale Hospital kitchen, of Associate Professor Melanie Oppenheimer (right) with Anne Bayliss, a Meals on Wheels Administration Support Officer, who is packing meals ready for delivery. In the background are David Gallagher (Meals on Wheels) and Shirley Bridge (Armidale Hospital).