From the very early days of the coronavirus crisis, Cayman’s elders were identified as the highest-risk group.
“The seniors were very concerned,” says Jennifer West, general manager of Meals on Wheels.
“They knew of the death rates from coronavirus around the world.”
For many Cayman Islands residents, the virus may be no worse than a bad cold. But the charity’s staff are painfully aware that for their clients it could be a death sentence.
Volunteers donned masks and gloves from day one and moved to a ‘knock and drop’ system – leaving the food on the doorstep.
“They are our highest-risk population and, even though they missed the interaction, they were appreciative of our efforts,” West said.
It is not just the virus that poses a threat. Loneliness, isolation, hunger and restricted access to healthcare are all side effects of COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns.
Meals on Wheels has seen demand for its services almost double since early March. As friends and family lost jobs, some seniors saw their support networks collapse around them and called on the charity for help.
It now serves more than 500 meals every day from community kitchens and partner restaurants around the island.
“On day one of the lockdown, we got 200 referrals,” said West.
From roosters to the Ritz
Marleny Bodden is a resourceful woman. She lives alone in a small, but pretty, painted cabin in a corner of West Bay that looks like it hasn’t changed for centuries.
On some days, when she is hungry, she traps a rooster and makes soup.
“It is easy,” she says, “just break the neck and clean it of the feathers, clean it with vinegar and put it in the pressure cooker. It is very tender.
“I take the boys and leave the girls alone. They taste better.”
Since Meals on Wheels started dropping by, she has had to rely less on her hunting skills.
When the Cayman Compass visited her on a Monday in early June, the charity’s chairman Rob Imparato, who is also a volunteer delivery driver, had just dropped off steak and vegetables prepared at The Ritz-Carlton kitchen.
“I never believe that people would bring food for us,” said Bodden. “That is a surprise, it is like a present.”
When she has extra food or even mangoes and bananas from the trees surrounding the property, she gets on her bike and goes on her own mercy mission, sharing the bounty with a friend who is housebound.
Bodden’s son and her ex-husband live nearby, so she is not totally isolated. But she misses her daughter and her grandchild.
She has her dogs for company and if she is ever scared about the virus, she watches cartoons for distraction or reads the Bible for comfort.
Many of the seniors on the Meals on Wheels route live in similar conditions, said Imparato.
“This is typical for many of our recipients. For our seniors, what we deliver can be the only meal of the day.”
Poverty and hunger, he says, are not new issues in Cayman, but the virus has brought them into the light.
“There is very much two Caymans,” said Imparato “That was going on long before COVID, and the crisis at hand has only made it worse.”
It is not only about food. Meals on Wheels provides daily interaction and welfare checks on seniors who may have no one else to look out for them.
“Some were unable to leave the home anyway,” he said. “Now, with the curfew in effect, they can’t even have their family visit. It is a mental toll that is very hard to quantify.”
The Meals on Wheels apparatus extends beyond food-delivery drivers. A separate set of volunteers performs a less visible role – making regular calls to vulnerable seniors to check on their welfare or just pass the time for an hour.
West said the ‘call-a-senior’ programme was established to replace the social interaction that has been lost on the doorsteps because of social-distancing measures.
“We implemented the programme to make sure that even though they were alone and socially isolated, they were not socially disconnected,” she said.
It is targeted at those who don’t have large family networks or anyone to check on them. In some cases, abiding friendships have been forged between volunteers and their seniors.
The calls also provide a vital source of information for those without access to Internet or television and a potential lifeline in healthcare emergencies.
“Some of our seniors have very severe health issues. They were very concerned, so having a lifeline to someone that could reassure them, ‘Whatever you need during this time, we will do our very best’ (is important),” says West.
Many of the seniors on the Meals on Wheels route and all of those in the call-a-senior programme did not wish to be interviewed.
Cayman’s elderly population encompasses a wide range of personalities and backgrounds. But many are used to a more humble lifestyle.
Some said the lockdown conditions had brought back fond memories of a simpler time in Cayman, when the streets were free of traffic.
Others said their faith was helping them through.
‘My soul is right for God’
Every Sunday, Fredrica Jackson puts on her finest clothes, switches on her iPad and attends three church services, one after the other, via Zoom. The lockdown hasn’t taken away her chance to worship – it has expanded it.
She believes if more people turn to God, the coronavirus will cease to be a problem. Her own faith has sustained her throughout her life and keeps her optimistic, even now.
“I’m 64. When I was born, I weighed one-and-a-quarter pounds. You ever see one-and-a-quarter pounds of salt fish?
“The doctor came every morning and say there isn’t a chance this baby live, but you see me here?
“I go through a lot of sickness – still alive – a lot of operation – still alive. So who is keeping me? Jesus Christ.”
Jackson spends her days studying her Bible, making masks on her sewing machine, cleaning the house and spraying down surfaces at regular intervals.
Though she takes precautions to keep her and her husband safe, the former hotel worker said she is not really worried about the virus.
“If it is the Lord’s will for the coronavirus to carry me home, then the Lord is ready for me,” she said.
“I just want to know my soul is right for God, you can’t worry about anything you cannot fix.”