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Hunger and the Senior: 5 Million Seniors at Risk of Malnutrition

Hunger and malnutrition is a greater problem for Canada’s seniors than many may realize—and it is due to a wide variety of causes, not just financial constraints.

According to a report by FoodBanks Canada seniors accounted for 5.5% of food bank clients in a typical month.

The Mayo Clinic (www.mayo.org) states that in addition to financial limitations, physical, social and psychological factors contribute to senior hunger or malnutrition, impeding seniors’ ability to maintain a diet that provides the necessary balance of nutrients for healthful living.

Many factors contribute to senior hunger. Seniors living on a limited income often have to choose between paying for expensive medications and buying groceries. Other factors that affect senior nutrition include debilitating conditions that limit seniors’ ability to get out to shop and prepare meals.

Difficulty chewing and swallowing as a result of diseases such as Parkinson’s, dry mouth caused by some medications, dental conditions and poorly fitting dentures also sometimes prevent seniors from getting the nutrition they need.

Altered body chemistry, which can occur when seniors lose muscle mass and fat, can also contribute to diminished appetites, especially in seniors with serious illnesses.

Some medications, such as some antidepressants, blood pressure and osteoporosis drugs, may diminish appetite, alter the flavor of foods and even interfere with absorption of nutrients. Reduced absorption of nutrients as a result of some physiological changes due to aging in many seniors reduces production of digestive enzymes and acids and interferes with breakdown of protein and absorption of essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B-12, folate, calcium and iron. Some illnesses, such as gastrointestinal cancers, diarrhea and inflammatory bowel disease, can also cause this problem.

Some medications and illnesses accelerate or intensify this loss, depriving seniors of some of the pleasure associated with eating. This can affect appetite. Bland, medically-prescribed diets can have the same effect. Natural flavor enhancers, like garlic, onions and spices, can help counteract this.

Depression, due to multiple causes such as grief, loneliness, retirement, poor health, and medications can also contribute to senior hunger. Seniors who live in isolation and the loneliness that comes with it are more prone to eating unbalanced diets or lacking the nutrition they need to be healthy. On the other hand, social contact promotes healthful eating.

Solutions for Senior Hunger

A variety of programs exists to help seniors get proper nutrition, such as Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to seniors, on-site meal programs provided by community organizations and senior centers, food banks.

To help find nutrition and other senior care services, contact your local senior center.

Other solutions to help seniors get proper nutrition:

  • Hire a professional caregiving provider, such as Comfort Keepers®, to assist with meal preparation, shopping, companionship during meals and other times, and provide other needed assistance around the home.
  • Find a grocery with home delivery service.
  • Look to churches and community organizations that have volunteers who shop and cook for seniors who live alone.
  • Check in regularly with seniors and share meals with them.
  • Join with other seniors who are alone, share in meal preparation and dine together.
  • Schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian.
  • Talk with your doctor about screening for potential nutritional problems, switching to medications that don’t affect appetite and reconsidering diets that may be discouraging a senior from eating.
  • Help seniors get regular exercise. Exercise is an appetite booster, strengthens bones and muscles and helps control depression.

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