Not only do home-delivered meals help ensure that the elderly receive nutritionally balanced meals, but a new study has found that the regular home visits may reduce loneliness as well.
“This continues to build the body of evidence that home-delivered meals provide more than nutrition and food security,” said study lead author Dr. Kali Thomas, assistant professor of health services, policy, and practice in the Brown University School of Public Health and a researcher at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Loneliness is connected to a greater risk for medical problems, emergency department visits, and nursing home placement, Thomas said.
For the study, more than 600 elderly participants in eight cities who were on Meals on Wheels waiting lists were either brought fresh meals each day, frozen meals once a week, or they remained on the waiting list as a control group.
Funding for the research, including the expanded availability of meal deliveries, came from a grant from the AARP Foundation. The study was sponsored by Meals on Wheels America, which released some of the results earlier this year.
The researchers interviewed the participants from all three groups (daily delivery, weekly delivery, or continued waiting) at the beginning of the 15-week study and again at the end so they could measure how the seniors’ responses changed.
Feelings of loneliness were assessed with two measures: a standard three-question scale and a separate single question: “Do services received from the home-delivered meals program help you feel less lonely?”
When the study first began, there were no statistically significant differences among the three study groups in their degree of loneliness by either measure. On the loneliness scale from zero to nine with higher scores indicating greater loneliness, members of each group on average scored between three and four.
However, other study data revealed that many of the participants were socially isolated. More than half lived alone, 14 percent reported having no one to call on for help, 25 percent reported participating in group activities, and 20 percent had contact with friends and family less than once or twice a month.
“The number of people who reported they had no one to call on for help is a cause for concern,” said Thomas, a former Meals on Wheels delivery volunteer.
The findings showed that meal delivery reduced self-reported feelings of loneliness to a statistically significant degree, compared to not receiving delivery. The measures of significance remained even after the researchers statistically adjusted for possibly confounding factors such as race, income, age, education, living alone, participation in group activities, and contact with friends or family.
After 15 weeks, for example, the average loneliness score of people who did not receive meals was 4.17 but for those who received either weekly or daily delivery it was 3.44.
The single-question measure, meanwhile, revealed a difference among people who received daily vs. weekly delivery. Those who received daily delivery were three times more likely than weekly recipients to report that home-delivered meal service helped them feel less lonely.
The study is one of few to rigorously investigate the long-presumed psychological benefits of home-delivered meal service, Thomas said. She believes it is the first randomized, controlled trial to measure the delivery’s impact on loneliness.
Thomas hopes the findings will be useful as policymakers continue to evaluate the budget and structure of public and private programs that serve the elderly in their homes.
“In a time when resources are being further constrained and demand is increasing, it is important that we have evidence that guides decision-making in terms of what services to provide and how best to provide them,” Thomas said.
The findings appear online in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.
Source: Brown University