All seniors deserve to have access to healthy and safe food.
Unfortunately, many do not.
That should not be acceptable to us.
Perhaps your senior loved one, or someone you know, is one of those at risk for poor nutrition.
There are programs and people making strides to help vulnerable seniors get the food and nutrition they need to stay healthy, well and independent to live in their homes as long as they can.
Seniors who can maintain the highest level of nutritional health as they age will be better able to age in place.
Helping Seniors Beat Hunger
As we age, nutrition becomes a cornerstone of our functional status. Without proper nutritional intake, physical problems can arise for seniors and lead to the loss of independence and the potential to require institutionalization.
No one wants inadequate nutrition to be the reason seniors must leave their homes.
Loss of muscle mass, unmanageable chronic diseases, and more frequent falls come with poor nutrition.
In an effort to advocate for the nutritional well-being of compromised seniors, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), in collaboration with both the American Society for Nutrition and the Society for Nutrition Education, has published a position paper in the Journal of the AND.
This paper highlights the need for seniors to have access to safe and adequate food and nutrition services when they choose to remain at home or in their community instead of having to move to healthcare facilities.
Access to Food Assistance
The desire is that all seniors be given access to food assistance programs, meal programs, nutrition education from a dietitian, screening and assessment for risk/needs, and monitoring of effectiveness of the programs offered.
The good news is there are many aging in place seniors who have been enjoying the benefits of community-based meal assistance programs, where nutritious meals are delivered to their doors or in a congregate meal setting such as in a senior center where not only food but also fellowship is offered.
Unfortunately, many others cannot participate or are unaware of the resources from which they could benefit.
There are several areas across the country, especially rural areas, where the needed services may not be available or they are not funded adequately to properly meet the needs of the seniors who desire to participate.
Even when a program may be in place providing seniors with meal options, limited funding may mean that Registered Dietitians are not always available to oversee the health and well being of the seniors in these programs.
Since the segment of the population aged 85 and older is growing rapidly, it is important to focus our attention on whether these oftentimes vulnerable elders are receiving the nutritional care they need and not falling through the cracks.
Access To Healthy Foods
Increasing access to food and nutrition education through community-based programs is one way to meet the needs of seniors.
However, they also need access to healthy foods that they can prepare in their own homes too.
Is there an affordable market near them or transportation that can get them there and back home safely?
Do they have finances available to pay for the healthy food their bodies require?
Seniors and their family caregivers can find resources to help them afford food by checking eligibility at BenefitsCheckup.org. This government website will allow you and your senior to find out if there are programs or benefits that they will qualify for including but not limited to SNAP, ILEAP and other programs.
Many seniors qualify for SNAP (supplemental nutrition) but are not receiving the benefits. SNAP also includes vouchers for produce and other items available at the local farmer’s market.
Even if the amount of benefit doesn’t cover their entire food cost for the month, every little bit helps. When on a fixed income, the money they save on food can be spent on medications, home repair or other expenses.
No senior should have to choose between food and medicine.
Food Safety For Seniors
Another way seniors can be at nutritional risk is from potential foodborne illness.
At a time when many seniors become more vulnerable to food safety risks they are declining in their ability to consistently handle their food safely according to the US Food and Drug Administration.
Seniors are more at risk for food poisoning because their immune systems don’t function as well as they once did. Their stomachs have less acid to kill any bacteria entering their bodies so they can become sick more easily.
Once they have food poisoning, they are more likely to suffer again from repeated bouts.
Seniors with reduced sense of smell and impaired vision could have a more difficult time recognizing that their food is spoiled or contaminated. They also can’t read the expiration dates on many food labels.
Food Safety Precautions
Because they are more at risk, seniors should take extra precautions to stay safe from bacteria and other pathogens that can make them sick.
- Encourage frequent hand washing.
- Wear their glasses when preparing food and reading labels. Be sure there is adequate lighting in food preparation areas.
- Don’t rely on smell or color when making meals and snacks. Use a food thermometer perhaps one with digital readout to make it easier to see the results.
- Keep foods refrigerated and store leftovers promptly to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
- If your senior is weak, find ways to reduce time needed to prepare their own meals, such as using pre-cut produce or pre-cooked meals. Help them with meal prep or rotate among family members bringing dinners in or taking them out.
- Use only pasteurized milk and juice.
- Avoid cans and packaging that are dented or damaged. Wash all can lids before opening.
- Wash all produce before cutting, even those your senior will peel. Separate cooked and uncooked foods during preparation using separate cutting boards.
It is better to be safe than sorry later.
Do They Need Help?
You may need to observe your senior loved one regularly to see if they are still capable of preparing their own meals so that they don’t avoid eating right due to failing abilities.
They may need some assistive devices in the kitchen to help ease the work of meal preparation. Kitchen Hacks for Aging Chefs may help guide you to find interventions that will help them stay independent and safe when cooking.
Food safety in the home, access to nutritious and palatable foods, and continued funding from government sources to make the appropriate programs available to those in need is an achievable goal we can all work together toward.
Don’t let your senior loved one be one of those living in hunger!