By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Good nutrition supports good health; however, for some older adults — including in the Rochester area — obtaining sufficient healthful food is challenging.
According to USDA data gathered in 2018, more than 37 million Americans were food insecure. Of those, 5.3 million are seniors.
“Food insecurity is a problem for seniors,” said Linda Tucker, registered dietitian and nutrition manager at ElderONE, an affiliate of Rochester Regional Health System. “They have definite reduced intake of nutrients they need. That can negatively affect their health. It is associated with increased prevalence of health problems, like congestive heart failure, diabetes, heart attack, asthma, hypertension, depression and it can also limit activities of daily living.”
Subsisting on an unbalanced diet of mostly pre-packaged foods only worsens existing health problems and can cause new ones.
The problem of senior food insecurity is local. Mary Rose McBride, vice president of marketing and communications for Lifespan, said that “too many” older adults “have one day of food in their kitchens. The need has been startling.”
For some older adults, the barrier to food is transportation or mobility. They may not drive anymore or may drive only locally. Driving to a full-service grocery store may require driving on busier streets. For others, navigating a large store is hard because of issues like balance, stamina, COPD, recent surgery or illness or arthritis.
While ordering delivered groceries online seems an easy solution, it is not as readily embraced by some older adults.
McBride said that Lifespan has provided information and how-to videos on its website to assist people in using food ordering or delivery services (www.lifespan-roch.org/lifespan-covid19). Some accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits but charge a fee for delivery that SNAP does not cover.
Ordering shelf-stable food through Amazon Prime or Walmart.com, for example, may help people unable to lug around heavy groceries. Paring down the shopping list to just the fresh foods may make grocery shopping easier. Prime and Walmart offer free delivery for members ordering $35 or more. Not all food items in Walmart are available through the site. Amazon allows customers to set up regular shipments (choose “subscribe”), so a customer can automatically receive orders of frequently used goods without having to go online to order them. Ordering shipments may require a higher number of items, such as four-pack of soup instead of a single can.
Some pharmacies that provide delivery do not mind adding to the order a few other items the store sells. That could help an older adult stay stocked up.
A growing number of grocery stores provide curbside pick-up for those who have transportation but struggle with store navigation. This service may incur a fee.
In addition to its regular bus stop routes, Regional Transit Service (RTS, https://myrts.com) provides bus rides on demand to persons of any age who call 48 to 24 hours in advance of when they want to travel. On a first-come, first-served basis, the ride costs seniors about $1.50 each way. An additional fee is charged for extra stops. The drivers do not assist people carrying packages or helping them onto the bus or to the door. Dial-A-Ride serves Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, and Wyoming counties; On Demand serves Monroe County.
Some communities offer scheduled senior rides or routes to help older adults access places to shop or keep appointments. Organization such as Catholic Family Center (www.cfcrochester.org) offers shopping transportation and, if needed, assistance, for a fee-based upon income.
For people who do not cook, staying well fed is challenging.
Many restaurants deliver; however, until recent times, the selection was limited. Apps such as Grubhub and DoorDash deliver food from many restaurants; however, they charge a fee. For anyone with budgetary concerns, it is not a viable option. In general, many restaurants’ foods contain higher levels of fat and sodium than recommended for good health.
Home meal delivery, food pantries, mobile food pantries and senior lunch grab-and-go sites are sources of inexpensive or free food for older adults.
Home health assistance can also make mealtime easier for older adults who are no longer safe cooking at home.
“If you don’t have food and you need help, you can call for help,” said Tucker of ElderONE. “The person who answers the phone can direct you to places where you might be able to get food.”
She recommends the 211 general information line or New York Connects, 1-800-342-9871.
“Calling either of those would really give the person options as to where they might go if they’re in need of food or want to apply for food stamps or need help with grocery shopping,” Tucker said.
Asking a younger friend or relative, a civic or religious organization or a neighbor for assistance can make a big difference in eating well and eating poorly. It could be as simple as, “Could you give me a ride to the store the next time you’re going? I don’t drive into the city anymore.”
Or asking, “Since you said you were going to the store, would you mind picking up a few things?”
Perhaps offering to set up an Amazon subscription or a meal delivery plan would help an older adult.
“It is hard to ask for help,” Tucker said. “We run into this because we help people who don’t have food and won’t ask their kids to help them.”
For further resources, call SNAP, 1-800-692-7462; NY Connects/Lifespan, 585-325-2800; or 211.