10 million older adults in America face the threat of hunger and end each day hungry.
Seniors we know and love could be affected — sometimes without family caregivers knowing it.
Food insecurity affects seniors in all parts of the nation.
Food insecure adults eat fewer calories and are deficient in key nutrients such as protein, vitamins A, C, B6, and thiamine as well as the minerals iron and magnesium.
It has been estimated that as many as 50% of community dwelling seniors are malnourished.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines hunger as a “potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation.”
There are local, state and federal programs that can help ease their hunger, but many of these assistance programs are hard to access, don’t collaborate, and may even be underfunded to meet the great need.
Some programs are wait-listed for many months, during which time many seniors are suffering.
Family caregivers can help their senior loved ones, not only by recognizing their need, but helping them connect and participate with beneficial programs.
Obstacles to Adequate Eating
There are many factors that can inhibit your senior loved one from attaining the nutritious foods that will help them stay well and independent.
All older adults face common challenges, such as these.
Having sufficient finances to access adequate, safe and nutritious food. They need adequate funds to pay their bills and medical care or prescriptions without diverting their food budget to maintain basic needs on a fixed income.
The ability to shop, select foods that are appropriate for health, and then transport them home.
Being physically able to prepare and store food safely.
Receiving social support during meals to enjoy their meals without feelings of isolation or depression.
Increased prevalence or worsening of chronic medical conditions when nutrition is inadequate.
Poor nutrition can mean reduced muscle mass, worsening cognition, poor wound healing, increasing falls, fatigue, and the inability to remain independent for many adults trying to age in place.
Consequences of Choosing Care Over Food
Some older adults who feel they have limited funds to purchase healthy foods often develop coping strategies that are harmful to their health.
Seniors may overly stretch the healthy foods they have to make ends meet.
They may eat less of healthy items they do have or skip meals altogether.
They often substitute cheaper, less nutritious foods, losing out on key nutrients.
They may feel the need to find ways, such as selling personal possessions, to afford food.
Many seniors will choose food over their prescription medications, making a bad situation worse.
Some seniors may seek help from others, including family members, faith community, elder resources, or neighbors, but many will not ask for a helping hand.
Family caregivers can help their senior loved ones get the nutrition they need with these strategies.
- Connect them with all the benefits for which they are eligible, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Some seniors don’t think the amount of help is beneficial, but even $125 a month will help feed a hungry senior. Completing the application and getting the benefits may be difficult for many seniors and your assistance may be needed.
- Find and secure home delivered meals.
- Register for senior services or senior care in a day program that serves one healthy meal a session to get additional nutritious foods, along with nutrition education to make the best food choices with their available budget.
- Are there local food banks or pantries that could be helpful in your senior’s locale? Does their faith community run a food bank that they could access? Removing the stigma from taking a “handout” could keep them home and independent longer.
- Set up family helpers to bring meals or take out for regularly scheduled outings to local restaurants.
- Gift your senior loved one with delivered groceries or meals from local restaurants for holiday gifts. Encourage all family members to do the same to ease their burden and offset their need to choose food over medicine. You can also order pre-made or meal kits that are easy for seniors to cook themselves and get delivered to their home.
- Upgrade their kitchen so that they can more easily prepare their own meals with adaptive devices and accommodations for their physical limitations.
- Increase their socialization during mealtimes by inviting friends, family or visiting them during meals. You can use technology to Skype or Facetime with them during their meal times so they can have virtual visitors to feel less alone.
What Our Seniors Need
Seniors need all our help to eat the most nutritious foods to keep them well as they age.
They need family caregivers to support and assist them in taking advantage of all the resources available to them in the community and through family.
Older adults often could benefit from education to guide them in making nutritious food choices with the food budget they currently have and not using it on convenience foods that don’t meet their nutritional needs.
They need public transportation to get to the market, community garden, faith community, senior center, and healthcare facilities.
Their homes may need modifications to allow them to continue to care for themselves, including improved accessibility for storing and preparing their meals.
Older adults need the help of their local community, private partners, state and federal agencies, and us to volunteer and support programs that provide them with nutrition assistance. We can be advocates for better nutrition interventions that are easier to access for every senior who is at risk for food insecurity.
Together we can help solve the crisis of hunger in our seniors.