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Senior Health

Food & Nutrition Programs: Key to Health of Older Adults in the Community

Why are healthy nutrition habits important for older adults?

About 95% of health care costs for older adults are attributed to chronic diseases. Since healthy lifestyle habits can reduce the risk and severity of these diseases, it?s essential that nutrient-dense foods are available and accessible to all persons. Unfortunately, more than ¾ of older Americans do not consume high quality, healthful diets. Malnutrition is associated with fatigue and weakness, decreased immunity, increased infections, more frequent hospital admissions, and increased mortality rates. The risk of malnutrition increases in older adults with limited finances, lack of transportation, multiple medications, periodontal disease, other oral problems, social isolation, and depression.

How can food programs help older adults?

Although an increasing number of Americans are enjoying longer, healthier lives, many older adults in the community could benefit from food assistance programs. With more than 1 in 4 older adults categorized as low income, many are at risk of food insecurity - that is, prolonged, involuntary lack of food due to insufficient resources. If accessible, food programs can reduce escalating health care costs and help people to continue living in their homes. The cost of one day in a hospital is the same as the cost of one year of meals from the Older Americans Act (OAA) Nutrition Program!

What federal- and state-funded food programs are available to older adults?

The OAA Nutrition Program is the largest national food program designed specifically for older adults. This program provides meals to adults aged 60 or older in a variety of settings, such as senior centers. It also offers home-delivered meals to those who are homebound due to illness, disability, or geographic isolation. Food programs available to older adults with lower incomes include:

?The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - a large national program that provides participants with electronic transfer cards (formerly food stamps) to purchase food items, excluding alcohol.

?The Senior Farmers? Market Program - provides seniors with fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers? markets, community-supported agriculture programs, and roadside stands.

?The Emergency Food Assistance Program - distributes foods to local food banks and soup kitchens, based on the number of low income and unemployed persons in the community

?The Child and Adult Care Food Program - provides funds to licensed centers that then offer free and reduced cost meals to older adults.

Unfortunately, all of these programs are underused by older adults due to being unaware of the programs, misunderstanding the application process, or feeling stigmatized by the services. To enhance the health of older adults in the community, we need to encourage participation and to support the continued funding of the food and nutrition programs.

This article originally appeared in Nutri-bytes (March 2010), a service of the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission.

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Last Reviewed: Apr 20, 2010

Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD
Professor of Nursing
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati