How we can help fight malnutrition among the elderly

by Jennifer Bowden / 11 July, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Elderly health

Photo/Getty Images

It may be as simple as including them in our lives, according to new research. 

It’s no secret that we’re ageing: the proportion of the population over 65 has doubled since 1981. By 2068, between 1.6 and two million New Zealanders – a quarter to a third of us – will be 65 or more, compared with 700,000 in 2016. Now, it’s time for a shift in the way we view and interact with our older people, says Massey University associate professor Carol Wham.

Wham led a research team that surveyed 167 older adults in the North Shore, Waitakere and Rodney areas of Auckland in 2014 and found 23% were malnourished and a further 35% were at high risk of malnutrition.

Those recently admitted to residential care had a significantly higher rate of malnutrition (47%) than those in hospital (23%) or living in the community (2%). This is to be expected, says Wham, since adults moving into care have typically lost their independence, have multiple health problems, probably aren’t mobile and are often taking many different drugs. “All their physiology is working against them because of advanced age.”

Malnourishment is not an inevitable result of ageing. However, the solution to the problem highlighted by these figures could be as simple as including older adults more in our communities and everyday lives.

Research here and overseas has found both living and eating alone are risk factors for malnutrition in older adults. Because eating is socially facilitated – we eat more when we eat with others – the most effective way to promote good diet in older adults is for them to dine in company, says Wham.

“Just taking a meal to somebody, such as Meals on Wheels or a frozen meal, might be solving only half the problem. We’re very time-poor, so it’s easy to just drop off a meal. It takes a lot more time and effort to invite them in for a meal or go to their place for a meal and share the time with them. And that’s the most precious thing – it’s spending the time.”

Carol Wham: a change of attitude is needed.

By including older adults in social activities and meals, we ensure they’re not always eating alone in their own home, says Wham.

In Holland, what started as an experiment at integrating generations in a nursing home has turned into a wildly successful arrangement. Humanitas, a long-term care facility for older adults, offered its vacant rooms to university students free of charge. In return, the students volunteer 30 hours of their time each month to work and interact with the residents.

The young students represent a link to the outside world for the older adults, and they teach the residents new skills, such as how to use email, social media and Skype.

Similarly, in Cleveland in the US state of Ohio, university students from local art and music schools have been integrated into the Judson Manor retirement community. In exchange for free accommodation, the students give music recitals and dine with and help the older residents. Meaningful relationships have evolved between the students and residents, too: some older residents give art lessons, cooking tips, and career and relationship advice to their younger friends. For students living far from home, the older residents have become a second family.

So while cooking and dropping off nourishing meals to elderly parents may seem helpful, Wham challenges us to reconsider what elderly adults really need. “I think intergenerational contact is really important and that’s what a lot of older people miss out on,” she says.

By sharing meals with them, we can help to improve their eating habits and nutrition, potentially improving their health and quality of life, too. But that requires a change in our attitude to being more inclusive of the older generation.

This article was first published in the June 24, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now


Lecretia Seales' widower makes his case for death with dignity
103655 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Health

Lecretia Seales' widower makes his case for death…

by Matt Vickers

Ahead of a report back on the End of Life Choice Bill, Matt Vickers, widower of assisted dying advocate Lecretia Seales makes his case.

Read more
Sid at the French Café to host a special lunch to support Christchurch victims
103751 2019-03-20 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Sid at the French Café to host a special lunch to…

by Metro

A special luncheon will be held to raise money in support of the victims and families affected by the Christchurch mosque shooting.

Read more
Tech giants accused of inciting violence for hosting mosque shooter's livestream
103603 2019-03-19 10:23:15Z Tech

Tech giants accused of inciting violence for hosti…

by Vomle Springford

Facebook, Google and other tech platforms are being condemned for hosting the Christchurch shooter's video.

Read more
'We've failed miserably': Critics condemn spy agencies' surveillance strategy
103607 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z Crime

'We've failed miserably': Critics condemn spy agen…

by Phil Pennington

Former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said the response to Muslims over what they see as a growing threat to them was "diabolical".

Read more
Party leaders saying little on gun law reform
103601 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z Politics

Party leaders saying little on gun law reform

by Gia Garrick

Governing parties are giving no clues on how the country's gun laws will change following Friday's terror attack in Christchurch.

Read more
Test of faith: Does New Zealand have anything to fear from radical Islam?
70722 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z Social issues

Test of faith: Does New Zealand have anything to f…

by Joanna Wane

Almost three years ago, the Muslim community in Auckland welcomed me into their world with warmth, trust and open arms.

Read more
Saziah Bashir: 4 things you should do following the Christchurch terror attack
103634 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z Social issues

Saziah Bashir: 4 things you should do following th…

by Saziah Bashir

What can we do? Where to from here? People have to recognise the Muslim community is grieving.

Read more
Christchurch shooting: How the world is reacting to the terror attack
103651 2019-03-19 00:00:00Z World

Christchurch shooting: How the world is reacting t…

by Ryan J Holder

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, there is grief, despair, anger and a righteous sense that things need to change.

Read more