Medicaid is the largest provider of health insurance for low-income people — children, adults and seniors, as well as those with disabilities.
It is a vital service for 1 in 5 Americans or 66 million people. Of these, 4.6 million are low-income seniors (also enrolled in Medicare, known as dually covered).
New research shows that these individuals have significant food insecurity challenges to overcome.
Because older adults can already be at a disadvantage due to limiting factors of chronic disease, fixed incomes, lack of transportation, or declining functional abilities, that those who qualify for assistance through Medicaid face additional challenges securing healthy food that impacts their well-being is unfortunate and upsetting.
Vulnerable Population of Seniors
Researchers from the Root Cause Coalition found that Medicaid beneficiaries struggle to purchase food in general and even more so when selecting healthier options.
They surveyed over 1,000 Medicaid recipients aging from 18-80 years and found:
28% of Medicaid beneficiaries purchase less food than they need due to financial problems.
32% purchase less healthy food due to lack of money
27% report they worry their food will run out before they get money to buy more
43% of Medicaid members say they often skip at least one meal a day. However, participants report that they want to improve their overall health and nutritional habits, as well as reduce their weight through diet.
38% of Medicaid members say their health is excellent, 28% have high blood pressure, and 34% say they feel stress when shopping for food.
67% say this stress is directly related to the price of food.
Insufficient Nutrition Education is Key
Education appears to be a key for improvement in this group, as it is for most of the general population. While recipients report discussing their health and eating habits with their doctor, only 32% say they can name a food or nutrient that will help their most pressing health concern.
Doctors can provide some guidance, but the researchers found that only 59% of recipients got this information. When they did receive nutritional advice from their healthcare provider, 79% report making changes to their eating habits.
Because nutrition-related health conditions are more prevalent in this population, much more education is needed. We recommend this health information comes from registered dietitians who are experts in counseling people to make health changes based on science and tailoring the information to the needs and culture of the person in their care.
Experts find that 1 in 2 seniors are at risk for or are already malnourished. Seniors who are food insecure have more emergency department visits, require more hospitalizations, and spend longer in the hospital when ill.
The unfortunate truth is that seniors with low incomes who qualify for Medicaid are making tough choices between purchasing food and basic necessities. They are more likely to experience health problems that require medical services with little income to pay for these services, including doctor visits and prescriptions.
Nutrition Education to Help Seniors
This isn’t meant to make caregivers afraid for the health of their senior loved ones but instead to recognize that their older adult may need more help and guidance to remain healthy.
Determining if a senior will meet eligibility requirements to become a beneficiary of Medicaid is a good first step. Each state is different when it comes to providing Medicaid. It is best to check with an elder law attorney or other expert to discuss their options and eligibility status.
If your senior loved one is financially unable to provide for their medical and living expenses, it might help them fill the gap.
After you take this step, it is important to help keep them healthy through improving their food choices. Almost anyone can make choices to allow them to eat better on a limited income or food budget.
If you need more information, we encourage you to seek out a registered dietitian to help them choose healthier foods to manage chronic disease and avoid functional decline from poor nutrition.
Tips for Eating Healthy on a Budget
- Plan meals ahead and use a grocery list to reduce impulse purchases. Keep a list all week so you buy what you need.
- Shop with the sales. Help your senior plan a week’s menus based on the items for sale in their grocery store each week. Buying food when it is discounted will help them get more for their money. Look for frozen vegetables on sale and stock up to eat when fresh is too expensive.
- Buy fresh produce in season. Avoiding watermelon during the winter and oranges in the summer when these items are not at their most abundant and therefore affordable can avoid driving up up the cost of food. Pick fruit and vegetables in season, experimenting with varieties they may never have tried before like acorn squash in the winter or fresh spinach in the summer.
- Use coupons for the items regularly purchaseed and pick generic items that are usually cheaper per ounce than name brands. Carefully compare prices before using the coupon, sometimes the store brand is cheaper even when you have a coupon. Learn how to read the unit pricing on the shelf, sometimes bigger or even on sale isn’t the cheapest per ounce.
- Prepare your own foods. Buying foods already made, pre-cut and processed increases the price per portion of meals. Cut your own fruit, portion your own fresh snacks like apple wedges instead of grabbing salty snacks and cook your own meals.
- Substitute lower cost proteins instead of eliminating protein from the diet. Use eggs, peanut butter, Greek yogurt, dry beans, cottage cheese, and nuts in the place of expensive cuts of beef or pork.
- Don’t overbuy and eat what you have on hand before it expires. Food waste will harm your budget causing you to throw away money. Use a first in – first out strategy to store foods so that you use up food before it spoils.
- Include whole grains in meal planning because rice and pasta are budget friendly, as is oatmeal.
- Skip snack foods, soda, and candy which add cost and calories but few nutrients!
Healthy Advice for Seniors and Caregivers
It is important for successful aging in place for seniors to do the following to maintain their health:
- Don’t skip meals
- Choose healthy, nutrient rich foods
- Exercise daily especially strength and balance activities to help prevent falls and maintain functional abilities
- Eat balanced meals that include protein to maintain strong muscles
- Drink enough water each day for proper hydration
- Get regular dental visits for tooth care (poor dental quality negatively affects eating)
Family caregivers can help their older adults achieve optimal health when we pay attention to what is in the cupboard and on their plate!