How we can help fight malnutrition among the elderly

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

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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.

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