Receiving a meal delivery at home might provide more than just food for seniors. New research also suggests that it’s a balm for loneliness. The randomly-controlled experiment, led by a Brown University public health researcher and sponsored by Meals on Wheels America, found that seniors who received daily meal deliveries felt a reduced sense of loneliness.
A total of 626 seniors from eight different areas across the U.S. were split up into three different groups, receiving either daily hot meal deliveries, weekly frozen meal deliveries, or remaining on the waiting list for the Meals on Wheels program. Before the trial began, the research team interviewed participants in their homes about their mental and physical health, social support networks, and loneliness. Then, the participants in the active test groups received meal deliveries for 15 weeks, after which the researchers conducted phone interviews about their current mental and physical health and how the deliveries affected their daily lives.
The older adults who participated in the study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, were at high risk for loneliness. More than half of them lived alone, a third of them screened positive for depression, and many said they were in contact with friends or family less than once or twice a month.
In the end, those who received meal deliveries experienced a reduction of loneliness over the 15 weeks. Those who got hot meals delivered every day showed the greatest reductions in loneliness, followed by the weekly group. (Only 459 participants made it into the results, because some quit the program, moved, or died during the study.)
While the study was peer reviewed, it was sponsored by Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit that provides meals to seniors. However, other studies have shown that having strong social contacts (or an expanding social network) is important for reducing loneliness in older adults, and if the volunteers delivering the meals establish a meaningful relationship with program participants, it follows that they would feel some reduction in loneliness. The program might also give participants a sense of belonging—another important variable in reducing loneliness. Still, once-a-day contact with a meal delivery volunteer isn’t enough to cure isolated, likely home-bound individuals. So don’t forget to call or visit the older people in your life.