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Food for the soul

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

According to statistics, nearly one in every six seniors in America faces the threat of hunger, not being properly nourished or food insecurity. The Journal of Nutrition defines “food insecurity” as having, “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” This has become such a problem that the AARP estimates the annual health care costs resulting from food insecurity is about $130.5 billion. This staggering number is caused by food insecure baby boomers (whose ages range from 57-75 years old), who are more likely to experience chronic health conditions than other baby boomers who have access to adequate food and nutrition. According to their studies, among food insecure baby boomers, 19% have diabetes, 28% have depression and at least 95% have at least one activity of daily living limitation due to reduced muscle mass, poor vision, or lower bone density. The numbers for the “silent generation” or the “great generation” (whose ages range from 76-93 years old) register as twice as many chronic diseases at 51.3%.

What do all these numbers mean? At the heart of it, it means good food is not only important at any age, but most especially at an advanced age. Unfortunately, a lot of elderly people are not able to get access to good nutritious food. Not only can their finances be more limited due to a fixed income, but they also do not have the ability to prepare home-cooked meals or have someone in their life that can help provide these nutritious-dense meals that their aging bodies need to thrive. What further complicates matters are dementias or cognitive decline that can make food less appealing and the fact that their appetites or taste buds change as they get older.

In 2011, the nutritionists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University produced "MyPlate for Older Adults" (which corresponds with the government's new food group symbol, MyPlate) to help address the special nutritional needs for the elderly. It was further updated in 2015 to incorporate the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Bright-colored vegetables, deep-colored fruit and whole grains, lean proteins and plenty of fluids from water, dairy, tea or soups are encouraged at every meal. Physical activity is also highly recommended as a way to stay healthy and independent. More about MyPlate for Older Adults can be found here.

In our care homes, “good food” has been the number one thing our residents rave about. Culturally, many of our team members grew up in a home where the typical question a person was asked when they stepped into a home was “Have you eaten?” or “Are you hungry?”. Our caregivers take pride in preparing nutritious and delicious meals and always take the time to make the dishes look almost too beautiful to eat. They understand that some people “eat with their eyes” and if they see a plate of food that looks too good to pass up, they will eat it without having to be coaxed. They also love finding out what our residents’ favorite foods are and try to incorporate those food into the meal rotation.

When looking for a potential care home or assisted living facility for your loved one, make sure you ask them what the food situation looks like. Do they use high quality ingredients? Are they able to cater to people’s preferences or diets? I try to encourage families who are interested in touring our homes to come around mealtimes so they can see for themselves what lunch might look like on any given day. As a foodie myself, I understand the importance of good food. I was raised in a home where my mother (who comes from Pampanga, a region in the Philippines known for incredible cuisine) made sure we were always well-fed and had amazing tasting food. To say that my palate has high standards is an understatement. This doesn’t mean I have to have “fancy” food, but rather, it needs to be food that’s prepared from the heart. Soul food. And, because I was raised with this truth that, "good food equates to a good life", the same belief is carried out in all our care homes.

Our residents very much look forward to breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks in between. Our team is the happiest when our residents are seen enjoying their meals and laughing around the communal table. When they are feeling ill, our staff loves to prepare nutrition-dense soup (also known as “magic soup” to our residents) to help bring about healing. The quality of the food has no doubt raised their quality of life and has contributed to their continued good health. Even our residents with Alzheimer’s are great eaters because our team takes the time to fill their plates with food that has a lot of color and different textures. These little things may seem little, but they truly make a difference. It matters.

I can still remember when one of our residents moved in, she was so impressed with the food. She came from another board and care where most of the residents had Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia. To save on time and costs, the home prepared big batches of chicken enchiladas and would freeze them. Because so many of the residents had cognitive issues (meaning their short-term memory was not great) they ended up serving them chicken enchiladas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, assuming the residents wouldn’t remember or know the difference (or lack thereof). This seemed to go unnoticed for the most part, except for our resident who didn’t have any cognitive issues! She was fully-aware of what she was being served to eat and grew tired of eating the same thing all day, everyday. Needless to say, the not-so-ideal food situation at that home was one of the main reasons she decided to move into a new home. There was also another resident who came from a place where they would buy fast food almost every day for their residents since it was “quick and cheap”. It’s saddening to think that elderly people were living in such conditions in a licensed facility, and I could only imagine what kind of food or nutrition (or lack thereof) is served in a private home for a senior in poor health either living on their own or with another elderly spouse or relative whose health and physical or mental capabilities are also declining. When faced with such a big problem, Mother Teresa would say, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” In our home, we try to do our part by making sure our residents are happy and well-fed. For the reader, maybe you can take the time to help a senior with grocery shopping or help prepare meals that are easy to put together but are still healthy and filling. Or maybe you can help an elderly person in your life sign up for food delivery programs and benefits. For example, Ventura County has a food pantry, congregate meal programs or meal delivery programs for seniors 60 and over. For more details on the Senior Nutrition Program offered by Ventura County, click here. As you can see, there are a lot of resources available out there, but they are unfortunately underutilized. A great way to make a difference in an elderly person’s life is just connecting them with resources that are available. We must continue to raise awareness on this issue so that we can help the most vulnerable in our communities in meaningful ways.

Hippocrates famously said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” These are certainly words to live by and when I think about the challenges our nation is facing when it comes to food and food insecurity – especially among the elderly population – it can feel so daunting to try and fix the problem. But by doing our little part in our care homes by making sure the meals we prepare are delicious and are made with high quality ingredients, I know we are at least able to make a difference in the lives of the residents for whom we have been entrusted to provide care. At our care homes, LOVE is always the secret ingredient and it’s never something we have to skimp on or substitute.

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