Many of us will be gathering this holiday season to share a meal with our loved ones. We will fill our plates and stomachs with foods that are dear to our families. We will make memories with our family members, young and old. But at the end of the day, when we part ways, many of our grandparents and other older relatives will go home to empty fridges and empty cupboards.
According to the UNC School of Government, food insecurity, which refers to not having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food, affects 14 percent of residents in Orange and Wake counties and 18 percent in Durham. An often overlooked food-insecure population is our senior population. According to the National Council on Aging, North Carolina is among the top ten states with the highest rates of senior food insecurity.
A 2014 study at UNC reports that over half of patients aged 65+ who are seen at UNC Hospitals are found to be malnourished. Seniors are more likely to be food insecure compared with other age groups for a number of reasons. Seniors are more likely to have lower incomes, lack access to 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 other factors, such as income, are controlled.
According to the North Carolina County Aging Profiles, between 2014 and 2034, the state’s 65 and older population will almost double from 1.5 to 2.5 million. As the number of seniors increases, the number at risk for food insecurity is also likely to increase.
Although there are food resources available through anti-hunger organizations, it is difficult for our seniors to ask for help when they need it. Today’s seniors spent their lives working for what they needed, and providing for themselves and their loved ones. It is difficult for many seniors to come to accept that they are no longer able to care for themselves in the way they once used to. Our seniors have put their hard-earned dollars into systems that are intended to support them as they age; yet in Orange County, for instance, fewer than half of the seniors who live at or below 150 percent of the poverty line are enrolled in SNAP, or food stamps.
It is imperative that we find a way to reach our hungry seniors. One way that we can identify seniors who need support is by utilizing a food insecurity screener at seniors’ primary care appointments. This tool would 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, such as Meals on Wheels, SNAP, food pantries, and meals at senior centers.
A report released by the AARP this September suggests that utilizing food security screenings in primary care settings could be an effective way to address senior hunger. Such reviews have been effective in connecting pediatric populations to resources, but only a few health care providers have implemented a similar screening process for senior patients . Some programs that have screened patients of all ages for food insecurity found the process to be especially helpful for seniors, who experiences challenges with the often complex applications required to receive resources.
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, utilizing these screeners in primary care settings will help build data about the extent of senior hunger, as well as the characteristics of those in highest need of resources. This data will help us better understand and respond to food insecurity in this growing population.
As the senior population grows, 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, a Master’s in Public Health student at UNC-Chapel Hill, has worked on projects addressing nutrition, poverty, and infant mortality.
How to help
Meals on Wheels delivers food to the elderly and disabled. To donate or volunteer call:
Durham County 919-667-9424
Orange County 919-942-2948