Once he built roads and bridges across Saudi Arabia, now he can’t walk without a cane and not even glasses can restore his failing eyesight.
Once she cared for a big, active family, now she can’t stand at the kitchen counter to make a meal.
Once she and her husband went on hiking and skiing adventures, now she can’t walk and food has lost its taste and he suffers from dementia and cannot see to drive.
Each day, these once independent, strong people wait for the knock on the door from Meals on Wheels driver Saundra Lopez, who will deliver their one hot meal of the day.
No one really believes they will ever lose the ability to make a meal, but life can be cruel. A stroke, a broken hip, loss of appetite or an onslaught of illnesses can leave a person who had lived a full, active, selfless life so weakened they cannot stand on their feet to prepare a meal.
The people who work and volunteer to put a hot meal into the hands of the seniors in Rim Country, like Lopez, know the people on their route — and they have a special place in their hearts.
Anthony “Tony” Whetten
Thanks to help from his kids, Whetten lives in a modern home with granite countertops and a three-car garage house on a hill in The Knolls.
But Meals on Wheels serves those who can no longer shop and cook for themselves. The program keeps people in their homes rather than moving them to assisted living.
Whetten had humble beginnings. Born and raised in the mountains of Mexico, he had no running water or electricity until he moved to the states. He became an engineer, built whole industrial complexes in places like Saudi Arabia — and raised a family. His son is a local law enforcement officer. He lived a full, busy, productive life — taking care of everyone else.
When he first moved to Star Valley, he and his wife lived in a trailer.
“This is actually my kids’ house, but it’s my dream house,” said the tall, blue-eyed, perky gentleman.
His youngest son lives across the valley in view of his father’s house and visits every day.
Whetten proudly states he is 84 years young, but he could pass for 10 years younger.
“I have a lot to live for. I dream of living to 91 and dying at the hands of a jealous husband,” he laughed.
But his body and life circumstances paint a different picture.
He lost his wife to a debilitating genetic disease (spinocerebeller ataxia) a year ago.
“We were married for 63 years,” he said. “She’s still in my heart. I miss her every day.”
Pictures and paintings of his wife, a lovely, auburn-haired woman, adorn the walls.
For two years he took care of her every need. He bathed her, cooked for her, helped her in and out of bed, dressed her and did her hair — until he could not. The last two years of her life, she lived in Rim Country assisted living.
The same year she passed, Whetten broke his hip and will have to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.
He also suffers from prostate cancer and takes medicine to try and control the disease that has invaded his bones.
And he can’t drive any longer because glasses won’t improve his vision.
But with the help of Meals on Wheels, he stays home near his family, friendly neighbors and views of Granite Dells. He praises the program for bringing him a meal during the week.
“And that Sandy is awful sweet,” he said of Lopez’s kindness.
Whetten said he loves people and adores visitors. For most of his life he worked as an engineer traveling the world and the states. “I’ve seen every state and country except Australia and Russia,” he said. “I made friends everywhere.”
While in Saudi Arabia building roads and bridges, his boss invited him and his wife Betty to visit his villa. “That was a real honor,” said Whetten.
Whetten believes he has received Meals on Wheels for the last six years.
It’s a lifeline.
Billy-Jean didn’t want to let anyone into the house.
“She says she just got up and is in her pajamas — I told her most people I see are in their pajamas,” said Lopez.
But Lopez talked Hendy into coming out and talking.
Hendy lives with her son, grandson and two dogs. She also lives with rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, neuropathy and breathing problems — at only 68.
Hendy, a tiny woman with sassy red hair without a string of gray, sits in a little chair in the living room with an oxygen tube strapped to her nose and her ankle wrapped in a support brace.
She says it takes her two hours for the medicine she takes to kill the pain in her feet so she can get out of bed.
The meal Lopez brought today is the first Hendy has had all day.
“(Meals on Wheels) helps me because my feet are so bad — I can’t get into the kitchen to even make a snack,” she said.
She said her son will cook for her now and then, but “he makes what he likes — like macaroni and cheese and chili dogs,” she said.
She had always been the support for her family, but now needs so much help.
When Hendy moved to Rim Country, she had no idea services such as Meals on Wheels and the transportation service existed.
“The Gila Aging group helped me,” she said. “I was here all alone.”
Since then, her son and grandson have moved in with her. They both have jobs that take them away during the day. Meals on Wheels makes sure Hendy gets one meal a day.
Before leaving, Lopez asks if Hendy would like her to set the food out on the table.
“That would be perfect,” she said. “I haven’t eaten yet.”
Alma and Bill Peek
The spry older couple live on a hillside tucked up behind the Baptist Church in Star Valley.
As she walks in, Lopez tells the Peeks the newspaper is with her to get the story and pictures they had agreed to last week. Alma takes one look at the camera, throws her hands up in the air and refuses to have her picture taken.
“I hate having my picture taken — I’ve only had three good ones in my life,” she says.
Bill stands quietly by the side watching the exchange. When asked if Alma is always so sure of her opinions, he nods and says, “All the time.”
The two have been married for 65 years. Alma is 88 and Bill turned 90 in April, but they look much younger.
The couple came from Michigan and decided to stay in Payson during one of their vacations. They had always lived an active life, said Alma, skiing, camping, fishing, walking and ice skating.
Their lifestyle has give them longevity and independence, except Alma has lost her taste for food. “It’s just doesn’t taste good to me anymore,” she said.
Between her loss of taste and trouble walking, she has little interest in cooking any longer.
Bill likes to eat, but he can no longer drive to the store because of his poor eyesight.
So, the two get one meal between the two of them, extra milks and whatever side the menu calls for — today it’s a roll.
“I still like to make soups and salads,” she said. “Bill will eat anything.”
Meals on Wheels keeps food in the fridge, providing health and energy for the needy elderly in Rim Country.
“Sometimes all I find in the fridge are a couple of ketchup packets,” said Lopez.
To qualify for Meals on Wheels, a family member or friend calls the Senior Center. The Center is in partnership with the Pinal-Gila Council for Senior Citizens organized under the federal government’s Older Americans Act.
The Council assigns a case manager who assesses the needs of the elderly person.
Some have no one to care for them, some have adult children living with them, but they must work during the day to pay for housing and cannot perform caretaker duties, such as feeding their elderly parent.
For more information, please call (928) 474-4876.