September is Healthy Aging Month and Hunger Action Month, and for many older adults, healthy aging starts in the kitchen. However, for many, the kitchen may not always contain all of the ingredients needed for healthy aging. Right now, in America, one in six seniors faces the threat of hunger or malnourishment. This accounts for about 8 million total Americans, and the number continues to climb. According to Medicare Advantage, “One-third of all seniors report trimming the size of their meals, skipping meals completely, or buying less nutritious food because they didn’t have money for a proper meal.” The sad reality is that since Americans are living longer, combined with the cost of living increases, so few of them have the means they need in order to maintain their own quality of life. This can lead to institutionalization and hospitalization, where “senior hunger costs the U.S. healthcare system $130 billion per year.” That cost is far too great for this country to bear, and it’s an issue that is far from going away.
The Journals of Nutrition define food insecurity as a person having “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable food in socially acceptable ways.” Basically it comes down to access – too many aging adults do not have access to healthy foods their bodies need to survive, let alone thrive. With the increase in food costs, it is also becoming harder for seniors – often living on limited income – to be able to access food that is nutritionally sound. Less expensive foods may fill you up, but they won’t always do much to keep the physical stresses of aging away. Every senior’s goal ought to focus on healthy aging, positive aging. This simply cannot be done if one is skipping meals, cutting back on nutritious foods, or cutting meals in half to ensure having food down the road.
There are many factors that lead to senior hunger:
- Financial hardship. For far too many, monthly expenses can come down to being able to afford medication and housing or being able to pay for nutritious food their bodies and minds need to age positively.
- Physical health concerns. From living with a disability to common aging concerns such as arthritis or muscle weakness, sometimes the kitchen is not a safe place for a senior to be. Also, older adults have increased dental health concerns, from weak or missing teeth. Combined with the pandemic and the concerns over the numerous variants, a trip to the grocery now includes extra threats for vulnerable seniors. Not being able to access or prepare healthy foods is a common barrier.
- Food deserts. Areas where people live that are lacking in fresh produce or healthier food options are considered food deserts. Normally, these areas tend to crop up in areas with a lower income demographic. Again coming down to access, the increasing number of older Americans who live in areas that are considered food deserts brings concern over their nutritional health and wellness.
Speaking of health and wellness, the effects of hunger on the aging body are numerous. “Not getting the proper nutrition can lead to an array of health issues, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, an unhealthy weight, osteoporosis, heart disease, and stroke.” On top of other normal signs of aging, these risks are far too great to bear for many. This can lead to increased fall risk alongside a decline in mental health often leading to depression and mental fatigue, sleeplessness, and isolation. As food feeds more than the body, the entire person must be taken into consideration when dealing with hunger – mind, body, and soul. Holistic wellness is key.
If you think that a senior in your life is facing food insecurity, you can:
- Offer transportation to take them to the grocery or even the farmer’s market! It’s still full farmer’s market season, so taking a senior shopping for fresh, locally grown produce and meats is a great way to ensure they are closer to finding that health in the kitchen that they need. If they are not able to accompany you, consider offering to do their shopping for them. For many, a simple support like having someone to get their groceries for them can keep them aging in place at home. Don’t have the time to always shop for Grandpa? Call VANTAGE Aging’s Home Wellness Solutions team, where our professional staff offers this service, and more, to seniors and those with disabilities who are in need. At low to no cost to the client, this is an affordable way to ensure the seniors in your life have foods on hand to remain healthy, safe, and well at home – where they want to be.
- Gather some recipes and make them an easy-cooking cookbook with tips that include how to prepare their favorite dishes in a healthier way. It may have always been Grandma Alice that passed down her coveted recipes, but this is a great way for the roles to reverse here. Maybe she’s never considered using cauliflower in place of other carbs or substituting whole grain flour for white. Showing a senior new ways to make things, and even preparing dishes with them, is one way you can help.
- Show them the money! It may be a fabulous buzz line from a movie, but truly, so many seniors qualify for nutritional relief programs that they are not aware of. From Medicaid to EBT benefits, there are resources out there for them, but it comes down to education and access. Help a senior find and apply for the benefits they deserve, and you will be rewarded with knowing you have helped them gain some peace of mind; that is priceless.
- Pull together friends and family for freezer meal make-a-thons. Helping others is more fun with friends, and chances are, many people you know also want to help but don’t know how. Host a freezer meal making night, where everyone brings over ingredients to make a few meals for seniors to be able to freeze and keep on hand. By splitting the ingredients list and making things in bulk, this becomes a low-cost way for everyone to get involved to help the hungry seniors in your community or family.
- Call your local Meals on Wheels Meals on Wheels delivers meals to seniors that are both delicious and nutritious! Following dietary guidelines and offering specialized diets that meet the nutritional needs for those with various medical conditions, Meals on Wheels prepares fresh meals at low or no cost to those in need, including lower income seniors and those with disabilities. Meals on Wheels provides more than just a meal! With friendly daily check-ins from volunteers and staff, Meals on Wheels also helps abate the effects of social isolation, which can include depression. Bringing meals and a smile to those in need, Meals on Wheels is an excellent resource in the fight against senior food insecurity.
There are many simple ways that we all can do our part to help the seniors in our lives stay healthy and safe while they age to help them bring their health back into the kitchen. This September, join us at VANTAGE Aging to help us celebrate both Healthy Aging Month and Hunger Action Month. Taking five minutes to share with your friends and community about the importance of healthy aging is an easy way to get involved, start a dialogue, and show the seniors in your life that you care.
*The information in this article is intended solely to provide general information on matters of interest for the personal use of the reader, who accepts full responsibility for its use. This article should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, medical, or other competent advisors.