Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

March 24, 1999

What do seniors want in nutrition and supplements? Guelph researchers go right to the source

More than just living longer, today's seniors also want more choice and control in their lives than previous generations, says Heather Keller, professor in the department of family relations and applied nutrition.

Keller is applying this in two research projects, one a new report on herbal and vitamin use among seniors, the second a long-term nutrition education program.

This past December when Keller was awarded $46,000 from the Danone Institute of Canada to design a nutrition education program for seniors, she enlisted the help of members of the Evergreen Seniors Centre in Guelph.

Along with fellow researchers, Keller hopes Evergreen will be the first stop on a nationwide journey to make nutrition a mainstay of seniors' health care.

To do so, she took a novel approach: asking the seniors to help design the one-year program. "Previous efforts at nutrition education have been top down, whereas our approach is bottom up," says Keller. "In part, we adopted this innovative approach because there is a new type of senior today, one who wants to be involved in his or her own health-care choices. Seniors like to have some control. They know how to solve their problems; they just want a little help doing it."

Keller tries to get the message out that there is a critical distinction between meals and nutrition. She points out that some seniors may neglect nutritional staples, such as fruits and vegetables. "Some seniors also find cooking a challenge -- not physically, but because many are on their on their own, single, and they lack the motivation to cook for "just" one person."

The program began with a survey of 400 Evergreen members, to identify nutrition problems. The planning committee of researchers and seniors then looked at the results. Keller says the feedback from the seniors included some "wonderful" recommendations as to how these problems might be solved, including group cooking classes for singles living on their own, and a community kitchen from which seniors could take meals with them and freeze them for later use.

At the same time, an earlier and ongoing research project is beginning to pay dividends. Back in 1997, Keller began investigating a standardized screening assessment system that could measure critical factors and provide warning signs of when a senior was at high risk. Called SCREEN (Seniors in the Community Risk Evaluation for Eating and Nutrition), she trademarked the tool and its name in February. Since then, a small ad in a nutrition magazine has resulted in more than 40 requests for the tool nationwide.

The tool uses multiple-choice questions to provide greater accuracy, and Keller believes it will allow health-care service providers who might not have formal nutrition training to identify problems quickly, or at least to give a heads-up that a patient should be referred to a dietitian. With a companion booklet on the way, Keller envisions the quiz could be filled out by seniors in a doctor's waiting room, then handed to the physician prior to an exam. "The aim is to incorporate nutrition and nutrition education into the mainstream services of health-care providers.

A lot of service providers know nutrition is important, but they don't know the questions they should be asking. SCREEN asks the questions for them.

"Most seniors use vitamins, mineral supplements or herbal remedies even though they are unsure if they need them, according to University of Guelph researchers.

Prof. Heather Keller and graduate student Jackie Mackenzie recently performed one of the first studies to look at seniors and their use of supplements and herbal remedies. They administered a questionnaire to 128 senior volunteers from sites in southwestern Ontario.

The study found herbal remedy users made up 46 per cent of the group, and 72 per cent of the seniors took vitamin and mineral supplements. Health food store personnel, family and friends were most likely to recommend herbals to seniors, whereas most vitamin and mineral users received their information from physicians.

"We were surprised to find that physicians were recommending the use of vitamins and minerals," says Keller. "Traditionally, the medical community has stayed away from this. It seems it is now accepted that supplements should be taken to meet dietary requirements in certain populations."

Keller is also reminded of something she's known for years: that today's seniors are not interested in hype about their health. "They don't believe the messages in paid advertising or miracle cures.

They want solid, independent research or contacts who will tell them the truth about vitamins or alternative medicines, and someone like a dietitian who can talk to them straight about nutrition."

On April 15, Keller will be speaking in Toronto at a meeting of the Ontario Gerontological Association. She will discuss SCREEN and the Evergreen nutrition education program. The meeting takes place at the Colony Hotel.

For more information, contact Communications and Public Affairs at the University of Guelph, (519) 824-4120, Exts. 3338/6982.

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