America's hungry elderly

Ms Corrine Whoie, 93, dropping US$1 in the donation box, to cover her meal at the Hattie Holmes Senior Wellness Centre in Washington, DC. Its lunch programme aims to provide seniors with nutritious food five days a week.
Ms Corrine Whoie, 93, dropping US$1 in the donation box, to cover her meal at the Hattie Holmes Senior Wellness Centre in Washington, DC. Its lunch programme aims to provide seniors with nutritious food five days a week.ST PHOTO: MELISSA SIM

Millions of seniors in the US are at risk of health issues or more rapid ageing because they aren't getting enough to eat

Proper meals for seniors may save millions in health costs

For 93-year-old Corrine Whoie, her US$1 (S$1.35) donation at the senior wellness centre gets her a lot more than just a lunch of salad, seafood, yogurt and juice.

Three times a week, she goes there, not just for company and to help cut down on grocery expenses, but also to get crucial nutrition that many seniors in the United States are missing out on.

Her visits to the centre make a welcome change from just snacking on whatever is in the fridge at home. "If I were at home, I would just eat cottage cheese or apple sauce," said the widow, who lives on her own in Washington, DC.

In the Land of Plenty, Ms Whoie is among millions of elderly people who are making do with less.

Even though America has been recovering from the Great Recession, some pockets of the community are still being left behind. Many seniors, in particular, are missing out.

From 2007 to 2013, the number of seniors worried about going hungry increased by 56 per cent, according to a recent study supported by the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH).

That is about one in six seniors - or around 9.6 million - facing problems such as not being able to afford a balanced meal and having to worry about food running out. And as the American population ages, the problem will get worse.

Groups that help alleviate hunger among the elderly say that, for every senior they are helping, many more are isolated and do not know how to reach out.

Ignoring this problem, the groups say, will just mean a greater burden on taxpayers as seniors age and malnutrition leads to a deterioration in their health and other medical conditions.

At the Hattie Holmes Senior Wellness Centre in Washington, DC, where Ms Whoie goes, about 60 seniors gather in the main hall for a meal that is served five days a week.

The mood is convivial, and anyone above the age of 60 is welcome to join in for a lunch that includes a salad bar, a main meal and a drink such as orange juice.

The centre's director, Ms Teresa Moore, says many of the seniors have difficulty making ends meet, even though they do not openly discuss their finances.

Some told The Straits Times that they have to live off retirement savings and pay rent, and they often eat only two meals a day.

Ms Peggy Ingraham, the executive vice-president of NFESH, said that, following the recession, her organisation was in greater demand.

Food became an issue for many seniors who had lost their savings. "They thought they had saved really well, then they lost everything in the financial markets and never got the money back," she said.

It is not only those with limited means who worry about going hungry, she said. Those living in rural areas or who have physical disabilities also struggle to get enough to eat.

"If you have limitations carrying out basic skills like going to the toilet, walking or preparing food, you are more likely to be hungry," Ms Ingraham noted.

"And if you are hungry, you are more likely to have problems with these skills... it's a circular thing."

Research shows that hunger can age a senior by 14 years.

"So at 65, I would have the limitations of someone who was 79 if I went hungry," said Ms Ingraham.

Also, a study last year by professors James Ziliak from the University of Kentucky and Craig Gundersen from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that, "among the senior population, food insecurity is associated with increased risk of developing negative health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma".

Advocates say it makes financial sense to help seniors avoid hunger and give them the nutrition they need, rather than have them end up in nursing homes or hospitals.

Ms Erika Kelly, who heads the advocacy team at Meals on Wheels, an organisation that delivers meals to nearly 2.5 million seniors across the US, said that a year of meals for a senior on its programme costs less than a night's stay at a hospital or a week in a nursing home.

Addressing the issue now "would save us millions of dollars", she said.

And if seniors do not step forward, then it is up to the community to watch out for them.

Prof Ziliak notes that the overall take-up rate for food stamps in the US is 75 per cent, but the rate for seniors is only 35 per cent.

"So finding ways to improve participation is one clear policy direction," he said, adding that doctors could help screen patients to see who might need help.

"Programmes that provide more opportunities for interaction with seniors, between one another and with younger persons, such as in congregate meal settings, might improve matters," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2015, with the headline 'America's hungry elderly'. Print Edition | Subscribe