Dinners with Love brings restaurant meals to hospice patients, caretakers

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BENNINGTON — Having a loved one in hospice care can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. But when a hospice patient and their caregiver can receive a hearty meal from one of their favorite local restaurants, it can make a potentially dark time a little brighter.

That's why the Visiting Nurses Association & Hospice of the Southwest Region decided to take part in Dinners with Love (DWL), a network of hospices and local restaurants around Vermont that provide a tasty, free meal to hospice patients once a week.

"It allows [patients] the opportunity to have a restaurant-style meal in the comfort of their own home," said Mary Pleasant, volunteer and bereavement coordinator who oversees the DWL program at VNA & Hospice.

The program at Bennington's VNA & Hospice launched last August. That month, three volunteers drove 105 miles to deliver 15 meals, donated by six restaurants to four hospice patients and their caregivers. Fast forward nearly a year: In September 2018, 12 volunteers drove 623 miles to deliver 77 meals donated by 5 restaurants to 14 hospice patients and their caregivers.

"To see the smiles and hear the joy it brings to our patients, I think that's what's most important," said Pleasant. "That's what's at the heart of hospice. I'm happy to be a part of Dinners with Love."

Pleasant estimates that 75 percent of VNA's hospice patients use the program. "Not all of them can eat at this stage, so we offer it to those who can benefit or those whose families can benefit from it," she said.

Sixteen local restaurants (including a couple in Massachusetts and New York) offer meals to Bennington County hospice patients: Brown's Brewing Company, Burger King, Chili's, Cilantro, Cozy Corner Restaurant, KFC/Taco Bell, Lil' Britain Fish and Chip Shop, Man of Kent, Subway, The Elm Street Market, The Grille at Mount Anthony Country Club, The Lounge at Pangea, The Publyk House, The Tap House at Catamount Glass, Two Brews Caf , and Your Belly's Deli.

"I can't thank the restaurants enough," Pleasant said

The process

Every time a new hospice patient requests to be part of the program or a new restaurant joins, Pleasant sends each patient a copy of restaurant menus by mail.

On Monday, Pleasant calls each of the patients to find out their food order. "And it's nice, because you get to chat with them and they get to thank you," she said.

She then forwards this list to approximately a dozen volunteer drivers who then let Pleasant know if they are available, and if so, what restaurant they plan to pick up from. Usually food pick-ups happen around 3 or 3:30 p.m. so they can be delivered by dinnertime. Accommodations can made for patients who cannot eat late or fall asleep early, Pleasant said.

Thursday is pick-up and delivery day. Some volunteers will deliver to one patient, while others may make multiple trips.

"Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes it takes three hours," said Nan Lance, one of the volunteer delivery drivers. "Basically, you feel good doing it. We're happy to help out."

Hospice is always looking for more restaurants to become part of the program and for more volunteers to deliver meals.

"I would love to double the amount of partners," Pleasant said.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer delivery driver can contact Pleasant. Hospice offers a condensed training a few times a year where new volunteers can quickly learn the ropes and begin making deliveries.

A statewide program

Dinners with Love is a statewide program that originally started at a grassroots level almost 10 years ago, operating in Addison and Rutland counties.

The program really began to take off last August when many more state hospice agencies decided to participate, said DWL Executive Director Sarah Audet. Now, agencies in Chittenden, Orleans, Grand Isle, Essex, and of course, Bennington counties are participating.

Audet, who operates out of Addison County, performs outreach to other hospice agencies to get them to join. When they join, she provides ongoing support and advice. Part of this support includes a handbook and toolkit with "everything they need to know" about running a DWL program so they don't have to start from scratch, Audet said.

"I'm often asked: `isn't your work incredibly sad to do, to know that everybody that you're there to serve ultimately passes away?'" Audet said. "But I think, again, getting to the heart of hospice: Hospice is just as much about living as it is about the end of life."

Last month, the statewide Dinners with Love network surpassed 100 restaurants donating meals each week to hospice patients and their families. The 100th restaurant was Taps Tavern in Poultney.

Nearly 90 percent of this program's funding comes from community donations, and the remaining 10 percent comes from a mix of corporate sponsors, Audet said.

Lance clarified that Dinners With Love is not necessarily comparable to Meals on Wheels.

"Meals on Wheels is great stuff," she said. "But some people have compared it. And I say no, no; this is a restaurant meal some of [the restaurants] are overly generous and include plates and utensils."

"I think it's especially nice because it isn't all the fanciest restaurants," Lance added. "KFC and Taco Bell was one of the first ones that contributed. Some people, that's what they want."

Pleasant recalled a hospice patient who was elated to find out that Burger King was one of the choices since she loves their milkshakes.

"'I know what I want,'" Pleasant recalled her saying. "'I want the largest strawberry shake you can find!"

A community cause

Participants of the program may not be able to enjoy the beautiful mountain views The Publyk House is famous for, but they can certainly enjoy meals from the restaurant. Co-owner Lauren Bryant heard about the program through two volunteer drivers she knows and couldn't be more pleased that the restaurant decided to participate.

"It has been easy on our end with absolutely no hassle," she said. "We received the cutest thank you card, too. Knowing that somebody benefits from this dinner delivery, we are very happy to partner with this type of community cause."

Nathan Johnson, owner of Lil' Britain Fish and Chip Shop, says he is honored to be one of the local restaurants participating in Dinners with Love.

"The thing that really has me hooked on DWL is knowing someone at this stage of life said `You know, I would really like a meal from Lil' Britain tonight,'" Johnson said.

He commended how the program includes caregivers with the meals as well.

"My mother cared for her parents and I saw how much work it was," he said. "She was always so relieved on nights someone else took care of dinner."

A positive impact

Not only do the patients get delicious food from some of their favorite restaurants, their caregiver does too.

"We understand this isn't just happening to the patient," Pleasant said. "If we can help [the caregiver] in any possible way that's what we're here for."

That's just another aspect of hospice: making the end of life for the patient comfortable, but also alleviating stress from family caregivers whenever possible.

Lance has heard from multiple patients and caregivers that sometimes the hearty portions of meals can last them a few days. Other have mentioned how great it is that they don't have to stress about planning dinner that night.

One family member told Pleasant that she and her husband would go out for a date night once a week. Once her husband's health began to fail, the couple was no longer able to drive out for date night.

"She's like: `This is our new date night!'" Pleasant said. "That was really sweet to hear."

"At the end of life, it's all those little things," Pleasant added. "It's the people, it's the love you share. So getting a meal that you're really going to enjoy — it means a lot."

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.

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