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New Partnership Helps Meals on Wheels Better Serve Older Adults

Older woman in her home waving to a young woman in a mask delivering food to her front door.

SilviaJansen / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Food insecurity and social isolation are risk factors for illness and hospitalization in the older adult population.
  • WellSky Foundation and Meals on Wheels America have formed a joint research partnership aimed at reducing social isolation and hunger in older adults. 
  • WellSky donated $50,000 to the research project. 
  • More government funding and creative health policies can help end social isolation and hunger in older adult populations.

Being disconnected from others and not having enough to eat are two of the most pressing issues facing the older adult population in the United States. According to the Food Research & Action Center, over 2.9 million U.S. households that included an older adult (aged 65 or older) experienced food insecurity or poor access to food in 2018. Additionally, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that one-fourth of older adults are considered socially isolated.

Two organizations are hoping to combat these issues and improve the lives of older adults. On September 14, the WellSky Foundation—a nonprofit dedicated to improving the livelihood of vulnerable populations—announced its $50,000 donation to Meals on Wheels America. The contribution is intended to fund a collaborative research project designed to combat social isolation and hunger in the older adult population.

"We know health is a combination of an individual’s circumstances that influence their overall wellbeing," Bill Miller, CEO of WellSky, tells Verywell. "With this in mind, it was a natural fit for us to partner with Meals on Wheels America in support of their mission to provide seniors with connection, community, and nutritious meals.”

Partnership Objectives 

The joint research project will expand on Meals on Wheels America’s efforts to use technology to report, track, and address changes in older adults who receive home-delivered meals. With WellSky Foundation’s commitment, Meals on Wheels will now be able to broaden its efforts to include helping healthcare organizations support older adults. 

Bill Miller, WellSky CEO

For aging people in rural areas, access to nutritious meals, and even the transportation needed to access meals and care can be a barrier to their long-term wellness.

— Bill Miller, WellSky CEO

“While this pilot project is focused on seniors transitioning from acute care settings or those facing multiple chronic health conditions, the technology being used in this project can be leveraged to support seniors at any time,” Lucy Theilheimer, Chief Strategy and Impact Officer for Meals on Wheels America, tells Verywell.

Putting Technology-Based Research into Practice

During the pilot phase, the project will give delivery personnel mobile devices that have the ServTracker Mobile Meals app, which captures data on observed changes in an older adult's physical or mental status. 

If a concerning change is detected, a series of action steps is prompted:

  1. The delivery personnel will immediately relay the information to their program’s care coordinator.
  2. The care coordinator will follow up with the older adult and take action. For example, they might contact social services or healthcare providers.
  3. The data collected from ServTracker will be shared with healthcare providers to help facilitate ongoing monitoring of older adults deemed at high-risk for hospitalization.

Theilheimer says that the most important information to be gleaned from the data will be “the degree to which seniors are better able to stay healthy and safe in their homes and avoid the need for high-cost healthcare.” 

Causes and Consequences of Hunger & Isolation

The high cost of healthcare in the U.S. affects everyone, but certain groups are at particular risk. Therefore, it’s important for healthcare providers, caregivers, and the general population to understand the causes and consequences of food insecurity and social isolation in older adults.

Food Insecurity

In some cases, whether or not an older adult has enough access to healthy foods will depend on their zip code. “For aging people in rural areas, access to nutritious meals, and even the transportation needed to access meals and care can be a barrier to their long-term wellness," Miller says. 

Food insecurity isn’t limited to older adults living in rural areas; urban areas can also be affected. Miller explains that people living in “food deserts” don't just struggle to easily access nutritious foods—they also don't have the resources to buy them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only complicated matters. Miller says since the pandemic began, Meals on Wheels programs are providing an average of 77% more meals and serving 47% more seniors.

Social Isolation

Human beings need human connection, but many older adults are socially isolated, which increases their risk of illness. In fact, the CDC considers social isolation in older adults to be a public health issue that can lead to dementia and premature death.

The pandemic has made social isolation even more of a challenge. To combat this, Theilheimer says that many Meals on Wheels America programs provide a contactless meal delivery service that allows staff and volunteers to briefly chat with seniors. The network has also expanded its telephone reassurance programs and is enlisting volunteers to write letters to older adults.

How Health Policy-Makers Can Help

While these measures are impactful at the organizational level, aid is also needed from lawmakers in Washington. “Investing in the social service infrastructure in this country–in community-based organizations, like Meals on Wheels–could be a gamechanger," Theilheimer says. She adds that a bolder step would be to include nutrition services as a covered benefit under Medicare and Medicaid.

“There are many possibilities and potential solutions we can explore," Miller says. "At WellSky, we’re also thinking about new payment models, like Medicare Advantage and how those can open up new possibilities for care coordination.”

Advocating for more legislature that would improve older adult health is not only a win for the population itself; healthcare systems would also benefit from fewer older adults being hospitalized because of food insecurity and isolation.

Fighting to reduce social isolation and hunger in the older adult population has been a long, uphill battle, and one that has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With this new collaborative effort, there is reason to hope that innovative ways to improve older adults' well-being are on the horizon.

“Together, we’re working to create a new model of care coordination that can be applied at scale across organizations and across the U.S.," Miller says. "At the end of the day, our goal is to help more seniors in more places."

What This Means For You

Food insecurity in older adults is about more than not being able to afford a meal—it's also about not having access to nutritious food, which can lead to malnutrition, nutrient deficiencies, and increased disease risk. Social isolation has also been linked to poor health outcomes, such as heart disease and stroke.

If you have a loved one who is over the age of 65, it's crucial to their health and wellbeing that you ensure that their dietary and social needs are being met.

 

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Article Sources
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  1. Food Resource & Action Center. Hunger is a Health Issue for Older Adults: Food Security, Health, and the Federal Nutrition Programs. December 2019.

  2. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. Updated May 26, 2020.

  3. WellSky. The WellSky® Foundation Donates $50,000 to Collaborative Research Project with Meals on Wheels America. September 14, 2020.