Five Ways to Help Older Adults Improve Their Nutrition

This week is Canadian Malnutrition Awareness Week.  The Canadian Malnutrition Task Force started this annual campaign to educate healthcare professionals on early identification and treatment of malnutrition, educate the public on the importance of discussing their nutrition with healthcare professionals, and to increase awareness of the important role nutrition plays in patient recovery.  As a clinical dietitian working at an acute care hospital, many of the patients I see are already malnourished and their course in hospital has the potential to worsen their nutritional status.  One study found that up to 45% of Canadians admitted to a medical or surgical ward are malnourished prior to admission. 

Older Adults are at Increased Risk for Malnutrition

One out of three seniors are at risk for malnutrition in Canada.  Why is this important? Malnutrition compromises a person’s recovery and increases length of hospital stays, risk for infection, and readmission rates to hospital.  For older adults, malnutrition can be especially debilitating, as it can lead to unintentional weight loss (that is mostly muscle loss), increased risk of falls, and loss of independence.

Older adults are at risk for malnutrition because they may;

  • have reduced or limited access to prepare or purchase food as a result of decreased mobility and/or access to appropriate transportation
  • experience altered taste and smell, or have difficulties chewing and/or swallowing
  • be living on a fixed income that doesn’t provide enough money for food after all the monthly bills have been paid
  • experience social isolation which reduces motivation to eat
  • lack the knowledge and skills necessary to plan and prepare nourishing meals, particularly if they have recently experienced the loss of a partner that was responsible for these tasks
  • be living in a facility that doesn’t accommodate their cultural food values resulting in sub-optimal intake of nutrition

The Consequences of Malnutrition in Older Adults

Although produced in the United States, and based on US data, this video does a good job of highlighting the consequences of malnutrition in older adults. In Canada, malnutrition increases a persons length of hospital stay by 2-3 days and costs taxpayers 2 billion dollars per year.

Fives Ways to Help Older Adults Improve Their Nutrition

Most of us have at least one older adult in our lives, whether it be an aging parent, grandparent, or the neighbour down the hall. Perhaps you’re an older adult yourself, looking for ways to improve your health.  Here are five ways you can help support yourself or the older adults in your life improve their nutrition.

  1. Set up a meal delivery service or arrange to have groceries delivered.  If mobility is an issue, having a meal delivery service can be a big help in improving one’s nutritional intake.  Many companies accommodate special diets, such as diabetes or low sodium, and some even provide modified texture diets.  Grocery stores are also increasingly providing delivery services, particularly in large urban centres.  If you know an older adult in hospital, setting up such a service can go a long way in helping to improve or prevent malnutrition – even if it’s only needed temporarily (during the recovery period after surgery, for example). Ask your hospital dietitian, occupational therapist, or social worker for help with this before they are discharged.
  2. Eat with others or stop by Grandma’s house with a pot of soup. Perhaps you can meet with a neighbour or friend for dinner on a weekly basis and share the cooking and cleaning duties. If you have an older adult in your life, drop in regularly for a meal or snack as a way to check-in and stay connected. As a bonus, you might learn the secret behind a famous family recipe or hear a scandalous tale that happened ‘long before your time.’
  3. Speak with a dietitian or help arrange dietitian services for a loved one.  You can find one here, call 8-1-1 (in British Columbia), or check with your local hospital or community health centre to see if they have an outpatient dietitian available. If you receive homecare services, ask your case manager if a qualified dietitian is available for house calls. Additionally, some grocery stores have dietitians that will offer in-store tours with nutrition education tailored to you.
  4. If the food at your (or your loved one’s) living facility sucks, say something.  If you don’t speak up, nothing will change. We all know that institutional food has a long way to go on home cooking, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help improve the dining experience or advocate for change.  Some residential care homes have a food committee that includes at least one resident or resident family member – consider joining as a way to better understand the food service and participate in menu changes. 
  5. Vote in the upcoming Canadian federal election. You might be wondering how casting your vote would have anything to do with helping the nutrition of older adults. Funding for healthcare directly impacts your ability to access dietitian services, and policies that ensure adequate income for all means there is enough money after bills to pay for nutritious food. While I’m not about to tell you who you should vote for, I do encourage you to participate in the upcoming election and consider looking at the candidates’ position on how they plan to address food insecurity and improve access to healthcare and dietitian services.

Additional Resources

Nutrition is important for people at all ages – be sure to contact a dietitian if you have questions or need assistance with your own nutrition.

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