For Portland-area seniors, there really is a free lunch; St. Joseph's Rehabilitation gives back with food, companionship

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PORTLAND — Getting out of the house can be a challenge for many during the cold and inconveniently traveled winter months, and especially so for seniors who may live alone or lack access to transportation.

So when Bruce Valley has an excuse to get out of the house, like the recently instituted free weekday lunch for seniors at St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation and Residence on Washington Avenue, he likes to make the most of it.

“It gets me up and out of the house, that’s what I like about it,” Valley said last week, taking a pause from the sort of shameless flirting with the three women at his table that only a senior can get away with.

“If I eat breakfast at home, I’m in the recliner all day. Once I’m out, I’m out,” he said, before turning back to a discussion of whether their retirement home allows overnight visitors.

St. Joseph’s, at 1133 Washington Ave., began offering the free lunch for seniors in late January, and has seen attendance steadily grow. On Feb. 2, 12 seniors, the largest number yet, enjoyed a meal including beef stew, macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, coffee and dessert.

St. Joseph’s Administrator David Hamlin said the Catholic assisted-living facility started the program because it “needed some sort of project to give back to the community.” Offering a balanced and nutritious meal to area seniors for free seemed like a good way to do that, he said.

Seniors may have lost friends or family, or the transportation to socialize regularly, leaving them isolated at home, Hamlin said. For some, the meals fill a need for companionship, he said. For others, they are a way to help stretch tight budgets.

“We recognize that … times are kind of tough,” Hamlin said. “So if we can let people do other things with that money, that’s great.”

It’s also a chance for residents of St. Joseph’s to meet people from outside the facility, he said.

The lunches are offered Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The facility pays for and prepares the food.

“We have plenty of food,” Hamlin said, noting that it is already feeding its 165 patients three times a day. “They’re eating the same food that we’re serving to everybody.”

So far, seniors visiting for lunch have been hosted at three tables near the cafeteria entrance with room to spare. Hamlin isn’t sure how long the program will continue, but if all goes well it may run through the summer, he said.

If the number of visiting seniors rises dramatically, St. Joseph’s may consider expanding the lunch period for outside diners to two hours each day, he said.

Valley has become something of a regular, and said he has been spreading the word to others at the seniors events he attends.

At his table, Jackie Sabatino and Charlene Tracy admonished him that he was looking in the wrong place when he asked how to get a date with a younger woman.

Despite the playful disdain, Tracy said the lunches are a good way to “meet nice people,” adding that her nearby retirement home rarely hosts communal meals.

Unbowed by her criticism, Valley looked happy, soaking in the women’s attention.

“We’re having too much fun today,” he said.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

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Jackie Sabatino, left, talks to Bruce Valley during a free lunch for seniors at St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation and Residence, 1133 Washington Ave. in Portland, on Feb. 2. Sabatino and her friends Charlene Tracy, center, and Alice Walker, seated at right, live nearby at the Northfield Green retirement home, which they said rarely holds communal meals.

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