We are losing the war on elder hunger in the U.S.


By Al Norman

Several weeks ago, researchers working for a group called The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger released a report that said seniors at risk of hunger “were at higher risk of experiencing negative nutrition and health consequences than food secure seniors.”

Is this a revelation to anyone?

Seniors at risk of hunger were:

•50 percent more likely to be diabetic;

•Twice as likely to report fair or poor general health;

•Three times more likely to suffer from depression;

•30 percent more likely to report at least one activities of daily living (ADL) limitation;

•14 percent more likely to have high blood pressure;

•Nearly 60 percent more likely to have congestive heart failure or experienced a heart attack;

•Twice as likely to report having gum disease or have asthma.

alnorman_headshotThere is no doubt that hunger is a serious health threat facing millions of seniors in the United States. The new report estimates that 2,500,000 seniors are at risk of hunger, and another 750,000 suffer from hunger because of poverty.

Hunger cuts across the income spectrum. Over 50 percent of all seniors who are at-risk of hunger have incomes above the poverty line. Hunger is present in all demographic groups. More than two-thirds of seniors at-risk of hunger are white. Seniors living alone, or living with a grandchild, have a higher risk of hunger. Urban or rural setting did not seem to influence “food insecurity.”

Although it sounds counter-intuitive, researchers found that seniors were more likely to be at-risk of hunger if they were between the ages of 60 and 64. Seniors age 80 and older were less likely to be food insecure. Homeowners faced half the odds of being at-risk of hunger compared to renters. By 2025, an estimated 3.9 million older Americans will be at-risk of hunger and one million will suffer from hunger.

One of the researchers concluded: “Simply put, these research findings prove that if you are older, hunger makes you sick.” She went on to note, “more and more seniors are going to suffer serious negative health consequences — unless we as a nation take the hunger-health connection seriously.”

The only people who don’t seem to take these statistics seriously are members of Congress and the medical establishment. Congress last month passed a farm bill that cut food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) by $8.6 billion over 10 years. Given that the average SNAP benefit for a senior living alone is already less than $122 a month, a cut of any size would be devastating.

These cuts prompted Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., to comment, “the Farm Bill slashes SNAP benefits for the poorest Americans, the elderly and disabled. We have a dire hunger problem in this country, and cuts to the SNAP program will only make it worse. Nearly 50 million people across the country do not have enough food to eat.”

Doctors, for their part, surely understand the crosswalk between hunger and poor health — yet how many patients are referred to a nutritionist? How many times does a doctor examine a patient’s refrigerator or cupboard — not just their blood lab work? Elders may say they are eating well — but when was the last time they had a nutritious meal cooked for them?

Yes, hunger can make you sick. But so can lack of legislative action on food assistance programs and a health care system that fails to ask people if they have felt hunger in the past month. We can learn more about senior hunger — but we won’t end it until we can provide sustained nutritional coaching to elders who either have a terrible diet or eat almost nothing at all. Until we hunger for these kinds of solutions, we will continue to lose the war on senior hunger.

Al Norman is the executive director of Mass Home Care. He can be reached at 978-502-3794, or at info@masshomecare.org.