By Laura Belazis, Senior Director of Strategy and Impact at Meals on Wheels America

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s just how valuable connection is to each and every one of us. Months of physical distancing, limiting our interactions and staying at home have been necessary to keep ourselves and our neighbors physically safe. But at the same time, those measures also cut off our access to our regular supportive communities. Humans are social creatures – we benefit from being surrounded by consistent, caring relationships. Supportive, rich and vibrant connection to others is crucial for our health and well-being at all ages. 

As the world starts to open up more, people have been busy shaking free of the isolation and loneliness that was new to them amid the pandemic. Yet, that isolation was already familiar to far too many older adults long before COVID-19 because many of our connections and support structures get interrupted as we age.

Losing Connections as We Age 

The risk of experiencing social isolation and loneliness is high for older adults, especially those who are homebound. Even before the pandemic, one in four older adults lived alone and one in three felt lonely – factors that increase susceptibility to a number of harmful and costly health issues. To make matters more challenging, common life changes that many of us experience as we age can further remove us from our vital communities. For example, retirement cuts off regular interaction and camaraderie with colleagues; grown children move further away from home; loved ones pass away; mobility or transportation limitations reduce our ability to move freely – just to name a few.

But meaningful interpersonal relationships help all of us thrive – mentally, emotionally and physically. So, when older adults can no longer easily participate in their communities, steps can be taken to bring those communities to them instead. That’s why community-based programs like Meals on Wheels play such an important role in fostering social connection for older adults.

Finding Connection at the Front Door

Community-based nutrition providers are a proven and essential source of social connection for older adults. With every meal delivery, Meals on Wheels staff and volunteers bring trusted companionship right to participants’ doorsteps through frequent interactions and friendly conversations – they may even be the only individuals those participants see in a given day or week. These check-ins are so powerful that feelings of isolation and loneliness have been found to significantly improve among older individuals receiving daily home-delivered meals, on top of greater improvements in anxiety and self-rated health overall. 

We know that social isolation and loneliness are very individualized experiences, so it’s necessary to take a flexible approach when seeking to foster connection. As such, Meals on Wheels programs have been exploring a variety of creative and resourceful ways to supplement the interactions that occur during meal deliveries to meet the growing and diverse social connection needs in their communities. Some examples include:

  • Friendly visiting / calling – One-on-one engagements between an older adult and a volunteer over an extended time, either in person or via regular check-in calls, to ensure the seniors know that someone cares about their well-being.
  • Group classes / activity programs – Facilitated classes or activities that older adults can participate in together, such as book clubs, art or exercise classes. 
  • Pet companionship – Pets play a key role in healthy aging and can mitigate feelings of loneliness, depression and social isolation as well as improve the physical health of older adults. Many Meals on Wheels programs offer pet assistance services to support older adults’ ability to keep their pets.

You Can Help: Cultivating Community Through Volunteering

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy – a long-time leader at the forefront of national efforts to address isolation and loneliness – spoke at the Meals on Wheels Virtual Conference last year. In his remarks, he said that Meals on Wheels’ ability to sustain our work lies in one of our most fundamental values – putting people first, one older adult at a time. For most Meals on Wheels programs, volunteers are the driving force that make it possible to do just that. 

If you’re interested in giving back to your community, volunteering with Meals on Wheels is one of the best ways you can make a difference! Find the Meals on Wheels program closest to you and give them a call to see how you can help deliver meals, support social connection opportunities and help older individuals stay rooted in their communities as they age.