At the Littleton branch of Meals on Wheels, delivering food is only one part of the mission.
The organization’s job is to deliver meals to seniors who need them. Volunteers help pack up the food made by the chef and then drive them to various homes in the South Metro area.
While addressing food insecurity, volunteers are also helping seniors feel less isolated. Gayle Melges, their director of operations, said drivers are encouraged to stay a while to talk with the client.
“That makes a huge difference,” she said.
Volunteers not only spend time chatting, but also remember birthdays. The organization will send seniors a birthday cake for the holiday, and for some, it’s the only thing they receive, Melges said.
“That little bit of being remembered and being a part of the community I think is huge,” Melges said.
Melges has seen isolation increase due to the pandemic. She noted a loss of community after guidance to stay indoors to not spread the virus. Some of that sense of community is still being rebuilt.
“COVID-19 created a lot of need, especially as everybody was encouraged to not go anywhere and do anything,” Melges said.
Isolation among adults has been a prevalent issue. The Surgeon General released an advisory earlier this year calling attention to the issue. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, over half of U.S. adults reported experiencing some sense of loneliness, with the pandemic only making that worse.
Loneliness comes with health effects, too. According to the Surgeon General, poor or insufficient connection results in a 29% increased risk of heart disease, 32% increased risk of stroke and 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.
There’s plenty of evidence pointing to how beneficial friendship is, as well as the adverse outcomes of loneliness and social isolation, according to Randi Smith, a professor of psychological sciences at Metropolitan State University.
“We know that people who are lonely and feel socially disconnected have a lot harder time with stress,” Smith said. “They’re more inclined to depressive symptoms, anxiety, more likely to have suicidal ideation or be at greater risk of suicide.”
She provided the example of having a stressful situation to navigate. Having a friend to work through the problem helps, as opposed to being alone.
“We humans are better at being kind and supportive to other people often than we are to ourselves,” she said.
Friendship also increases emotional intimacy.
Smith explained that some of the need comes from evolution. As a social species, humans couldn’t survive without a group. As an example, she pointed to babies developing reflexes like grasping to find an adult.
“Relatedness is a hardwired need that human beings have,” she said.
Physical touch also comes into play. Not just sexual contact, but simple things like a hand on the shoulder or a hug can activate positive physiological responses, Smith said. With people isolating during the pandemic, physical touch sometimes fell by the wayside.
What is a friend?
To each person, a friend means something different. And there isn’t a universal standard.
“A friend is best defined as a self-perception, not as some objective measure,” Smith said.
It’s not the number of friends someone has, but rather one’s own perceived social support. Someone may need one person who is always there for them, or six. It also comes down to reciprocity.
“It’s not just being on the receiving end of social support that we need. It’s also being on the giving end of it,” she said.
Humans feel like helping others because it helps develop a sense of belonging.
As people age, it becomes increasingly difficult to make friends.
At different life stages, like when children are in school or young adults are in college, it groups many people in the same place going through similar circumstances.
Those settings aren’t as common as people age, but it’s still possible.
Smith said people can use a new app called Bumble BFF, or join in on community events.