Senior Hunger & Food Insecurity — What Family Caregivers Can Do

A continuing obstacle to staying healthy for seniors who age in place is food insecurity.

Family caregivers worry their senior loved ones may not be eating right but some, especially those who are long distance carers, may not realize how serious a problem they may be facing.

Worse, that this problem may be beyond their control without a little help from others.

Having food insecurity is not the same thing as senior hunger, although one can lead to the other. Hunger is a physical symptom of pain when there isn’t adequate food consumption which is usually temporary.

What is food insecurity?

Food insecurity is not having access to a sufficient quantity of wholesome, nutritious food that is affordable. It is a cultural, social and financial state which is often permanent.

Factors Contributing to Food Insecurity

It is estimated by the 2010 census that as many as 24 million people in households over 40 years old have some degree of food insecurity.

A major obstacle to accessing healthy food for many of our senior loved ones is money. Fixed incomes may not stretch to cover the cost of housing, medical care, medications, and food.

They may be forced to decide between prescriptions and food every month.

Maybe what they bought on their last shopping trip didn’t last until the next check arrived, so the funds weren’t sufficient to meet their eating needs. This could lead to skipped meals or eating smaller portions than they should for health.

Older adults may try to make their money go further, thinking that purchasing cheaper food will keep their budget in control. However, this means they are avoiding healthier food because it might be more expensive. Just having some food which isn’t nutritious enough to meet a senior’s physical needs isn’t the answer.

Another reason seniors may be food insecure is that they simply do not have healthy food sold near them. Perhaps they live in a rural area where the closest grocery store is too far from them. Sometimes living in a large, bustling city can also mean no grocery chains are close, instead only convenience foods sold in local markets or bodegas.

Areas without available healthy foods are known as food deserts.

Seniors may also have difficulty with transportation to go to and bring back healthy foods. They may no longer be able to drive and there may be no public transportation in their location. Paying for rides to get food could be out of question on a fixed income.

It is common sense that is proven by statistics – poorer people have more food insecurity.

Those living in the south also have higher food insecurity. This tends to illustrate the greatest problems resulting in food insecurity: economics and physical access due to geography.

So Many Affected by Hunger

Feeding America has created a map to help us all learn who is affected most by food insecurity and the number of people who are food insecure is shocking. This video explains more:

Older adults who receive SNAP (formerly called food stamps) have even higher levels of food insecurity according to an AARP 2015 Food Insecurity Among Older Adults Report.

Recently the NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Study) study reported that SNAP participants were not choosing healthy foods and ate only 1.3 servings of fruits and vegetables (lower than recommendations of either 5 A Day or DASH plan of 7-9 per day) and drank more sugar sweetened beverages than others.

SNAP has no restrictions on the nutritional quality of the food purchased with the benefits.

Consequences of Food Insecurity for Seniors

Why should family caregivers be worried about food insecurity?

The AARP report finds that households suffering from food insecurity are more likely to have adults with long term physical health problems, higher numbers of chronic disease, and greater frequency of depression.

With chronic health conditions and increased medical needs as a result of poor nutrition, costs for healthcare increases leading to a downward spiral and less money for food.

Lack of adequate nutrition to maintain health is a challenge many older adults can’t overcome.

What Family Caregivers Can Do to Fill the Gap

Awareness of Food Insecurity

Family caregivers initially should observe whether or not your senior loved one is food insecure.

Ask yourself a few of these questions:

  1. Can they afford nutritious food in addition to costs of living and healthcare?
  2. If they have adequate funds, are they making healthy food choices?
  3. Can they get themselves to the grocery store, carry the food home, and prepare their own meals?
  4. Is healthy food accessible in their location or do they live in a food desert?
  5. Do they have a disability that compromises their ability to access healthy food?
  6. Does their mental status impede their self-care, that is, are they too depressed to care whether or not they eat?

Once you determine the prevalence of food insecurity and the potential root cause, it is time to take action.

Acting to Solve Food Insecurity

How can you help your senior overcome food insecurity?

Some solutions:

  • Complete the checkup to be sure your senior receives all the financial help the government has available for which your senior is eligible.
  • Food pantries or banks – are there any local food banks either operated by a faith-based organization or community agencies that your senior could use to fill the gaps?
  • Online grocery shopping and food delivery – can you help your senior who may be too far from the grocery store get food delivered via online company?
  • Food assistance via SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) – getting them in the system and their benefits could be something caregivers can facilitate for seniors
  • Get knowledge about which foods are healthy, how to make the most of your food budget and ways to manage or prevent chronic disease through healthy eating and encourage seniors to follow a healthier lifestyle
  • Arrange for a meal delivery system such as Meals on Wheels to get them a nutritious meal
  • Enroll them in a senior center near them to get more information on nutrition, companionship, socialization and a hot meal daily.
  • Bring them foods for their pantry or hot meals and schedule other family members to do the same.

Helping them get what they need to stay healthy is important for seniors to remain independent as they age.