Durham nonprofit Meals on Wheels celebrated nearly 50 years of service this week, recognizing volunteers who drive meals to housebound senior citizens. 

The celebration came as the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program—the federal law that funds nonprofits like Meals on Wheels—turned 50. Durham community members founded a local food delivery program only a few years later, in 1975. 

The program currently serves about 600 people in Durham County, according to spokeswoman Nia Richardson. Last year, volunteers delivered 201,504 meals to a total of 994 people.

Meals are delivered to those who are homebound and unable to drive because of age, physical impairment, or lack of transportation. The nonprofit works to fight food insecurity and malnutrition, according to a news release.

Volunteers hope that a combination of regular, nutritious meals and social contact will help people “remain independent and at home for as long as possible” as well as “combat the health risks associated with feelings of isolation and loneliness,” Richardson said in a statement. 

“A daily visit or a periodic phone call is a crucial component to supporting our clients’ sense of wellbeing and connectedness,” she said. “Volunteers help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation by providing a friendly greeting, delivering a warm meal, and checking discretely to be sure clients are safe and healthy.”

Social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death, a risk that rivals those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not only is loneliness associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, but among heart failure patients, it can increase the risk of death nearly four times and the risk of hospitalization by 68 percent. 

Loneliness is also associated with an almost 50 percent increase in the risk of dementia, while poor social relationships are associated with a 29 percent increase in the risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increase in the risk of stroke, according to the CDC. 

“Despite decades of proven success and bipartisan support, funding for this program has failed to keep pace with the rapidly growing need for its services,” Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, said in the news release. “With the nation’s senior population increasing dramatically, now is the time to support local Meals on Wheels programs – through volunteering, donating, and speaking out – to ensure we are able to deliver for another 50 years.”

Durham Meals on Wheels is in need of volunteers to deliver meals, pack meals, or make weekly phone calls to check on seniors, Richardson said. The nonprofit is also seeking donations to cover the cost of meals for people and their pets. Find more information here

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Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.