Unaided Elderly at Nutritional Risk, Prof Says

August 09, 2006 - News Release

When it comes to eating, if vulnerable elderly adults are left on their own, they are at a much greater nutritional risk, says a University of Guelph professor.

In studies published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging, Prof. Heather Keller in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition found that meal assistance programs, like Meals on Wheels, family support systems, and formal nutrition programs help prevent vulnerable elderly adults from becoming malnourished.

“Nutrition risk is found to predict mortality and health-related quality of life, so it’s extremely important to find ways to help vulnerable seniors improve their food intake,” said Keller. “By providing a hot meal a day, you do actually improve the food intake of an individual.”

Keller followed 263 older adults for 18 months and found that Meals on Wheels participants showed an improvement, or at least no decline, in their nutrition over time. Participants who went out to a central facility to have a meal and socialize with others on a weekly basis also didn’t experience a decline in nutrition risk.

By the end of the 18 months, 30 per cent of participants were at high nutritional risk (experienced a weight change, didn’t get food from the four food groups, didn’t eat frequently) compared with 42 per cent of elderly adults who weren’t in a meal-assistance program.

“The nutrition risk of our study participants who didn’t have Meals on Wheels or congregate dining got worse, they got more nutritionally frail,” she said.

In a related study, Keller found that vulnerable elderly adults who had family around to help them showed improvements in their diets. “Basically, if you’re older, frailer and weaker, you’re going to have problems, but if you get support, you’ll improve your food intake,” she said.

About 75 per cent of Keller’s study participants were women living alone. “Many women feel guilty about getting help with meals because they’ve been cooking all their lives and think they should continue to do it,” she said. “We found that participants living alone don’t have a lot of motivation to cook for themselves.”

The ones that do have the ability and motivation to do their own grocery shopping often avoid heavier items and end up buying things that are easy to make that are often less nutritious, said Keller. “They might not be able to carry a four litre bag of milk home, but would be offered milk through the Meals on Wheels hot meal, so they’d be better off nutritionally if they take part in a meal-assistance program.”

In a nutrition education program that Keller launched at a senior’s centre in Guelph, Ont., she found that the people who participated in the program had better attitudes around nutrition and had commented that the programs they attended helped change their behaviours.

“We really have to change older adults’ attitudes around using support services,” she said. “These programs have the potential to improve or maintain the nutrition status of seniors and prevent their health and quality of life from declining.”

Heather Keller
Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition

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