Many of us gathered last Thursday to give thanks and share a meal with our loved ones. We filled our plates and stomachs with foods that are near and dear to our families. We made memories with our family members, young and old. But at the end of the day, many of our grandparents and other older relatives went home to empty fridges and empty cupboards.
Although there is little information about how hunger affects the seniors in Orange County, a 2014 study at UNC reports that over half of patients age 65-plus who are seen at UNC Hospitals are malnourished. Seniors are more likely to have lower incomes, lack transportation in order to obtain nutritious foods, and are more likely to have physical disabilities that prevent them from preparing nutritious foods. Food-insecure seniors have a higher risk of experiencing chronic diseases, even when factors such as income are controlled.
According to the North Carolina County Aging Profiles, between 2014 and 2034, the population of adults age 65-plus in Orange County is projected to increase by 109.8 percent. We must ensure that Orange County is prepared to meet the needs of its aging baby boomers.
Despite a number of resources available through anti-hunger organizations, it is difficult for our seniors to ask for help when they need it. Our seniors have put their hard-earned dollars into systems that are intended to support them as they age; yet in Orange County, fewer than half of the seniors who live at or below 150 percent of the poverty line are enrolled in SNAP, or food stamps.
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A 2014 study found over half of patients age 65-plus seen at UNC Hospitals were malnourished.
It is imperative that we reach our hungry seniors. A report released by the AARP this September found that using food-insecurity screening tools in primary- care settings can be especially helpful for seniors, who often experience challenges with the often complex applications required to receive resources. This tool would also take the burden off of the seniors to ask for help by measuring indicators of food insecurity, including those that are specific to seniors, such as physical challenges to preparing foods and inability to drive. Seniors who are found to be food insecure would then be connected with the most appropriate programs available in Orange County, such as Meals on Wheels, SNAP, food pantries, and meals at senior centers.
Screening tools are practical for our health care providers to implement. They take little time to complete and can remove the barrier of asking for help. The referral process can match seniors with services that address their unique needs, and this process can be made low-cost by leveraging partnerships and resources with local anti-hunger organizations. Additionally, using these screeners in primary-care settings will help build data about the extent of senior hunger in Orange County, as well as the characteristics of those in highest need. This will help us better understand and respond to food insecurity in this growing population.
As the aging population in Orange County continues to grow, it is imperative that our local health-care providers ensure that seniors are supported by the resources they have earned and deserve. After all, much of what we have to be thankful for this season is because of the hard work of seniors.
Emily Donovan is a graduate student in public health student at UNC.