Loneliness and social isolation have become a public health crisis around the globe. In a recent national survey, the AARP Foundation found the number of people age 45+ who consider themselves lonely has grown by 5 million since 2010 to 47.8 million.
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a Minister of Loneliness this year to address “the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, and those who have lost loved ones.” It is encouraging to see growing attention to the topic as prolonged social isolation is linked to poor health outcomes, especially for older adults.
One program that is addressing the issue of isolation in the US is the Congregate Nutrition Program, part of the Nutrition Program under the Older Americans Act (OAA).
The program, which was added to the OAA in 1972, provides older adults healthy meals in group settings like senior centers. Today, participants in the program—most of whom are 75 years or older—report that one meal provides one half or more of their total daily food intake.
The language of the Nutrition Program in the OAA specifically names socialization among its goals: (1) reduce hunger and food insecurity, (2) promote socialization of older individuals, and (3) promote the health and well-being outcomes of older individuals by assisting them in accessing nutrition and other disease prevention and health promotion services to delay the onset of adverse health conditions resulting from poor nutritional health or sedentary behavior.
The Retirement Research Foundation funded the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP) to study the value of socialization for older adults who participate in Congregate Nutrition programs. Since 2016, we’ve been looking at how the program can contribute to better health and well-being outcomes, and support older adults to age in place and remain independent. Our work is some of the first to examine the socialization opportunity of the program. Other research up to this point has mostly focused on the benefits for the meal itself and nutrition education provided at the site.
Though more than 200 in-person interviews and 3,000+ surveys, NANASP was able to quantify the impact of Congregant Nutrition programs. We found that respondents who said they had more friends now than when they started visiting the site were also nearly 4 times more likely to say they now exercise more and 5.5 times more likely to say they have improved health.
As part of this research, NANASP Executive Director Bob Blancato visited 14 sites across 12 states. During his travels, he met several participants who have been in a program for 20 years or more–and even some who have participated since the program opened its doors.
When possible, these local congressional representatives and staffers joined Blancato on site visits. This allowed us to show them first hand how their constituents are benefitting from meaningful personal engagement each day.
After meeting and talking with over 200 older adults, Blancato found the best socialization story of all: a couple who met at the Pahrump Senior Center and then got married!
This work began the long overdue process of identifying the benefits of socialization from Congregate Nutrition programs. But our work is not yet done.
NANASP and RRF will continue to study and support these programs. Our work next year will include a national grassroots advocacy campaign advance of the 2019 reauthorization of the OAA.
For those who are interested in advocating for the Congregate Nutrition Program in their own community and beyond, we offer some advocacy suggestions: