New study shows that 1 in 10 people aged 60+ have been eating less since the start of the pandemic and could be at greater risk of becoming malnourished.
A new study from charity Age UK reveals that 1.4million older people aged 60+ in England have been eating less since the start of the pandemic and could therefore be at a greater risk of becoming malnourished, while 3.7million say that either they or others in their household have been unable to eat healthy and nutritious food.
Results from the recent survey of older people by the charity are stark and show how tough life has been for many older people since the start of the pandemic. Lockdowns have left some older people with reduced appetites and less able to shop for, prepare and eat enough good food. The charity is worried that this hidden problem of undernutrition and malnourishment in older people is increasing at pace, with:
• Nearly half (49%) of people who already had difficulty going to the shops saying this has become harder.
• Two in five (43%) of older people surveyed said they feet less confident or much less confident going to the shops by themselves than they used to.
Eating and drinking enough is especially important as we age. Being well nourished helps to maintain muscle mass, which in turn improves mobility and reduces falls. It keeps us warm, and gives us energy, as well as being a big mood boost that enables us to continue to do all the things that are important to us.
Before the pandemic it was estimated that some 1.3 million older people were already suffering from or at risk of malnutrition in the UK. Covid-19 restrictions instantly and dramatically increased the amount of time older people have been isolated from family, friends and carers. People were left alone and vulnerable, with the anxiety of catching the virus, restricted access to food shopping and a reduction in essential health care and daily support. This resulted in many older people feeling isolated and lonely and losing their daily routine has put many more older people at risk of becoming malnourished.
Age UK is calling on everyone to start a friendly conversation with the older people in their lives to ensure they are having enough to eat and drink after an incredibly tough year of coronavirus and the restrictions it has imposed on us all. The charity is also encouraging people to look out for signs that loved ones maybe be under-nourished.
Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director, said: ‘We really are worried about the number of older people who are now reporting they are not eating enough and it’s vital that we all raise the issue of eating well and getting enough nutrients with our older relatives and friends, sensitively and supportively.
‘When we are able to see them face to face we should take the chance to look out for warning signs that they may not be getting enough to eat – like rings being loose and slipping off, clothes looking too big, belts needing to be tightened. It is sometimes quite difficult to recognise that an older person may unintentionally be losing weight.
‘If older people become malnourished this can have serious implications for their health. Not eating and drinking enough increases the risk of infection and falls and worsens any existing long-term conditions. It also makes it harder for people to recover from an episode of ill health. We all need to do everything we can to help our loved ones, friends and neighbours to keep up their nutritional intake – and enjoy it too.’
Dianne Jeffrey, Chair of the Malnutrition Task Force, said: ‘It is devastating to hear that so many older people during lockdowns have been left with reduced appetites and are less able to shop for, prepare and eat enough good food. Age UK and the MTF is worried that this hidden problem of undernutrition and malnourishment in older people is increasing at pace.
‘We know that now more than ever, it’s essential that older people are eating enough to maintain their health and well-being. Many older people are struggling to shop, cook, eat, and drink enough nourishing food, without their usual health and social care support or support of families and friends. Malnutrition makes it harder to recover from an episode of ill health which is particularly worrying during this pandemic. If malnutrition is not addressed, many of these people will eventually be admitted to hospital which is often the first-time malnutrition will be identified.
‘The call for action is that better raising awareness, identification, services and support are available to ensure older people are getting the right help, at the right time to remain independent, well-nourished, and hydrated.’
Ways we can all help
You can ask an older friend or relative what they are eating to keep warm. By asking what is their favourite food could be a good way to start a conversation about how they’re eating. Ask them if you can run through a checklist to see if there is anything you can do to help. You can also ask them the questions below:
- Are you concerned that you may be underweight?
- Have you lost a lot of weight unintentionally in the past three – six months or have you noticed clothing or rings becoming loose recently?
- Have you recently found that you have lost your appetite or interest in eating?
- Are you concerned about how to shop for food, your food budget, and/or your ability to cook meals?
- Are any eating difficulties because of things like dentures not fitting properly or do you have any difficulty swallowing, chewing or cutting up food?
- Do you think you are drinking enough, or do you find it difficult to drink?
If a friend or relative answers yes to any of these questions it is time to take action. The Malnutrition Task Force’s website has information on what to do if someone is underweight, having difficulty with the physicality of eating, or having difficulty chewing or swallowing food. You may also wish to talk about consulting with their GP or healthcare professional.
The Malnutrition Taskforce also offers advice on changes that can help someone who is unintentionally losing weight:
What can older people do if they are worried about their appetite?
• Speak to your GP to rule out other health conditions and they can arrange for referrals to a dietician or speech language therapist if required
• If teeth or dentures are a problem, make an appointment with a dentist. Some dentists will make home visits. If there is difficulty with chewing, try eating soft foods such as scrambled eggs or yoghurt
• If you can’t face a large meal, try small meals and snacks throughout the day.
• Move to full-fat foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese.
• If you have difficulty opening items, make sure to pick up items that are easy to get into
• If your eyesight isn’t good, try using a blue coloured plate – this helps people to see what they are eating.
• Try to introduce some routine, for example a regular snack with a favourite TV programme.
• If you need help with shopping, look into online shopping or find out what support local Age UKs can offer to older people who have difficultly shopping or are lonely.
• If a care worker supports you with meals, talk to them about incorporating these suggestions into your care plan.
For more information you can contact Age UK and order a copy of their free booklet on eating well in later life.