Just like a car, our body works best when it is well maintained and receives the proper amount of quality fuel. Also like a car, the older our body gets the more likely it is to break down in some way or another. That’s why proper nutrition is so important and why older adults need to be particularly careful about including enough vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in their diet to fuel a healthy, active lifestyle in their senior years.
But that’s easier said than done. Most people make poor food choices occasionally and some may not always eat well for various reasons. Most worrisome are the many people who are at serious risk of poor nutrition: they simply do not get enough of the nutrients necessary for good health. Older adults are especially vulnerable due to one or more factors including a lack of appetite or sense of taste, low income, isolation and physical disability (1).
It’s a serious problem: approximately one third of Canadians aged 65 or older are at risk of having poor nutrition (1), which in turn puts them at greater risk of health problems like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease (2). To make matters worse, the support that is available – from community organizations to health care providers, hospitals, dietitians and doctors – often lacks the coordination, monitoring and training necessary to meet the needs of older adults who could use help (3, 4).
The McMaster Health Forum – a leading hub for improving health through collective problem solving – prepared a summary of the latest high quality evidence on the topic and shared this with a panel of 11 older adults in Ontario affected by the problem of nutritional risk among older adults. The panel shared their ideas and experiences on the issue and discussed options to address the situation.
What the research tells us
Programs and initiatives aimed at teaching people about healthy eating can have great benefits. For example offering nutrition education to older adults – face to face, by telephone or through the internet – can improve their health and well being (5). Delivering education and advice in groups (6) or through other media can also help older adults maintain better diets (7, 8). Boosting motivation through behavioural counselling (6) and financial rewards for healthier eating behaviour (9, 10) have also been successful in changing eating habits.
When it comes to identifying and advocating for older adults who may be at risk of poor nutrition, dietitians, doctors, nurses, community health care workers and informal caregivers make up the “front line” team. As familiar and trusted care providers, they are able to provide necessary care (11) while offering advice and education on nutrition (14-17). They can also play a role in improving awareness of poor nutrition in care settings such as hospitals, nursing homes and residential facilities (12, 13).
Major barriers to improving older adults’ nutrition are a lack of awareness among the general public and even in the health system about the importance of ensuring older adults are getting proper nutrition. Other obstacles include older adults’ distrust or difficulty understanding important nutritional information (18), and a lack of awareness of available resources for people at risk (17).
What the panel members told us
The panel maintained that nutrition education and awareness programs may help older adults make wise food choices, provided the campaigns are designed to be easily understood, relevant and respectful of various groups and cultures. The panel members agreed that accessibility is key; initiatives need to focus on improving access to food, not just access to information.
Many older adults are socially isolated, distrustful of new information and/or unwilling to change long held behaviours. Therefore, a priority is finding better ways to identify people who may be at nutritional risk so they can receive the help and support they need. This will require the proactive involvement of doctors, nurses and other health care providers, some of whom may need specialized training themselves in order to be able to pass on accurate information about diet and nutrition.
But it shouldn’t stop there. Members of the panel believe that everyone has a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of older adults by reporting or referring family members, friends or neighbours who they believe to be at risk. While such referrals may be in the best interests of older adults, they also could be seen as a breach of their privacy and right to make their own decisions. The panel members stressed the need to carefully consider whether referrals are justified and that the benefits of intervening outweigh any potentially damaging consequences.
The panelists believe more cooperation among all parties, a more holistic health system, and a more compassionate attitude toward seniors are first steps to addressing the barriers listed above and ultimately providing effective help to vulnerable older adults.
What do you think?
Eating well is not always easy. Share your thoughts about diet challenges you or your loved ones face in the comments box at the bottom of the page.