Malnutrition and older adults: what you need to know

September 19, 2017

This week marks the 6th annual Malnutrition Awareness Week. The week serves as a way to draw attention to malnutrition for both health professionals and the public.

Though Malnutrition Awareness Week addresses many different populations and demographics, for me it is incredibly important to highlight senior malnutrition, as it is often a hidden reality and goes unnoticed.

For instance, did you know that nearly one of every two older Americans is at risk of malnutrition? And disease-associated malnutrition in older adults costs, both in health care settings and in the community, an estimated $51.3 billion annually.

The statistics on senior hunger and malnutrition are shocking and unacceptable.

In August, the State of Senior Hunger in America released its most recent report. It found that the percentage of people over 60 who faced hunger has been on a steady upward trend since 2001.

In fact, between 2001 and 2015, the proportion of older adults facing hunger doubled. And while senior hunger plateaued in recent years, 14.7% of seniors nationwide face the threat of hunger. In Washington, DC, that statistic rises to a dismal 18%. Nearly one in five DC seniors lacks sufficient access to enough food to eat to maintain not only their health and functioning, but also their dignity and quality of life. DC ranks 15th overall in terms of state-level estimates of the threat of senior hunger in 2015.

senior hunger

Here at Iona, the “hidden hungry” are a reality (though not so “hidden”to us). They are some of our clients — like the 84-year-old man with lung cancer who spent his time alone in a hot, rundown house. Or an 84-year-old woman (who weighed just 82 lbs.) with severe lung disease. She lived with her husband, who has dementia. It’s the 90-year-old man, referred to Iona by the manager of his apartment building. He lost 25 lbs. over a two month period and sat in the lobby all day, saying he didn’t want to die alone in his apartment.

Senior malnutrition is complex, and is affected by a number of issues such as poor appetite, unintentional weight loss, frailty syndrome, decreased mobility, lack of transportation, acute and chronic diseases or conditions, psychosocial and mental health issues, isolation, poor oral health, cognitive decline or reduced capacity, and food insecurity. Access, or lack thereof, is a key concept when you consider causes of senior hunger.

Simply put, many older adults lack the ability to plan, procure, prepare, and consume healthful meals and snacks.

So, what can you do to help yourself or others?

  1. Ask your doctor or a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) for help if you or a loved one have any unplanned weight loss, loss of appetite, feel weak or tired, are not able to eat or only eat small amounts and lack access to sufficient food.
  2. Here in DC, the DC Office on Aging has community dining sites and home delivered meals and other food and nutrition programs and services for seniors, which you can find here.
  3. Additionally, the Capital Area Food Bank website has a Get Help link to an extensive database of resources. Just plug in a zip code and select the kind of food and other resources needed to see what’s available near you or elsewhere.
  4. You can also check out the infographics on the National Council on Aging website to increase your awareness and learn more about senior hunger and malnutrition and why it’s important not just to individuals, but to our communities:

Finally, in honor of Malnutrition Awareness Week, you might also consider making a donation to Iona, so that we can continue to do our work and expand our services to hungry, malnourished seniors in our community.

By Rose Clifford, RDN, MBA

Rose Clifford, RDN, MBA has practiced as a registered dietitian nutritionist in the Washington, DC area for over 30 years. Her current primary work as the Nutrition Program Manager for Iona Senior Services focuses on helping older adults maximize their nutritional health so they can live active, full lives in their own homes. Rose is an active member of the DC Office on Aging Nutrition Task Force and is FY17 co-chair of the Food & Nutrition sub-committee of the DC Senior Advisory Coalition.