(Editor’s note: This article is part of an editorial partnership between Next Avenue and the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, a Cleveland-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance support for older adults and caregivers.)
Most of us know eating right is one of the most important aspects of healthy living. We recognize that bad eating habits contribute to obesity and chronic conditions like heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure) and type 2 diabetes, and that by taking steps to eat healthy, we can use food as a preventative medicine against these risks to our long-term well-being.
The medical community is leveraging this “food as medicine” concept one step farther by — in some cases — prescribing specially tailored diets to recently hospitalized patients in an effort to speed recovery and reduce readmissions. Doing so among older adults, however, presents some unique challenges, according to Lisa Weitzman, WeCare administrator and manager of business development at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.
Recuperating older adults are often frail or struggling physically, which may be a barrier to their ability to shop for and prepare post-discharge meals themselves, Weitzman said. Issues of social isolation and food security — particularly among low-income older adults — are also at play.
Nationwide about 5.5 million adults aged 60 and over, or 7.7% of the older adult population, are food insecure, meaning they lack access to a sufficient amount of healthy food on a day-to-day basis. An inadequate diet can lead to functional disabilities among older adults, exacerbate vulnerability to infection and illness and increase hospital admissions.
In many cases, social isolation compounds the problem. One only has to reflect on the social nature of eating — “how often we eat as a family or share meals with friends,” Weitzman said — to understand the impact of losing that interpersonal connection.
“What we find is that older adults who are living alone and don’t have regular social interactions with others may lose that inclination to eat or to eat healthy,” she said.
A Way to Provide Nutritional and Social Support
To address these issues, Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging is currently studying the impact of providing free home-delivered medically tailored meals and social support to at-risk older adults. Physicians at Cleveland, Ohio’s South Pointe Hospital, the Institute’s pilot partner, refer low-income and socially isolated older adults with heart disease, hypertension and/or diabetes to this program, Nutrition Solution, upon discharge. Registered dieticians then create meal plans based on the patient’s specific needs. These medically tailored meals are then home delivered via the Institute’s existing meal delivery service.
“A poor-quality diet can have a negative impact on things like medications, energy, balance and sleep- all of which can make older adults more susceptible to injuries, illnesses and readmission.”
Previous research suggests that medically tailored meals have a positive impact.
In a study published by JAMA Network Open in 2019, people who received medically tailored meals had 49% fewer hospital admissions and 72% fewer nursing home admissions than those who did not receive meals.
A 2018 study, published in Health Affairs, found one insurer saved an average of 16% in monthly medical costs on patients who received medically tailored meals compared with a control group who did not. The savings were derived from fewer ambulance trips, emergency department visits and hospital admissions.
What sets the Benjamin Rose pilot study apart from the earlier studies is the addition of wellness phone calls to combat social isolation and monitor recovery.
“Nutrition Solution volunteers spend approximately 20 minutes each week talking with their matched older adult, reviewing nutritional education materials and helping to reduce the older adult’s social isolation,” Weitzman said.
If medically tailored meals are not available in your community, as a caregiver, you may need to take a more active role to ensure your older loved one has proper nutrition after a hospitalization.
Weitzman says that nutrition should be an essential part of a holistic treatment plan following any older adult’s hospital discharge.
“A poor-quality diet can have a negative impact on things like medications, energy, balance and sleep — all of which can make older adults more susceptible to injuries, illnesses and readmission,” according to Weitzman.
She offered a few more tips for older adults and their caretakers:
Get help with special dietary needs. If you or your loved one suffers from a chronic health issue, ask a physician or dietician for guidance on how to structure meals appropriately. Weitzman noted a diabetic’s nutritional needs are different from someone who is suffering from kidney disease or taking a blood thinner. Health professionals can help ensure you or your loved one’s diet matches any pressing medical concern.
Pay close attention to issues of access. Many times, Weitzman said, “we assume Mom eats pasta and white bread because that is what she likes.” But, maybe it’s all she can afford. Or, maybe Dad eats snacks and sweets rather than meals because he can’t stand at the stove to cook. Identify issues of access that are impeding older adults from making healthy food choices.
Be present. Isolation and lack of support contribute significantly to food insecurity. Consider how you can interact with isolated loved ones during meal times. If you can’t be there in person, perhaps you can dine virtually via a video chat. “Find a way to make that eating experience more social,” Weitzman said.
Finally, if finances are preventing you or your loved one from getting enough healthy food, don’t hesitate to look into public assistance for support. There are several avenues to explore; learn more about the application process for your state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or seek out the nearest Meals on Wheels provider.
By Judy Stringer-Holman
Judy Stringer-Holman is a freelance writer and editor with more than 25 years of experience contributing to media outlets. Many of her frequent articles appear in Crain’s Cleveland Business, where she also writes for the paper’s custom content division, Crain Content Studio. In addition to business, she covers community news and oversees special sections about senior living, wellness and home improvement for ScripType Publishing, a collection of nine monthly magazines in Summit and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio.
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