|Due to the coronavirus, the assisted living facilities and nursing homes to restrict visitors and closely monitor the residents for signs of the disease. / Photo by: Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123rf|
Food security is a priority for all countries. It is not just about the availability of food and the ability of people to access it but also all aspects of society and economy. However, as the coronavirus spreads in the US, health officials have failed to address the challenge that millions of low-income seniors, who lack adequate nutrition and access to healthy food daily, face.
Economic geographer Annelies Goger, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow from Brookings Institute, acknowledged the “fine job” that officials in the country have made in educating the public on how seniors are at heightened risk from the coronavirus. This led the assisted living facilities and nursing homes to restrict visitors and closely monitor the residents for signs of the disease. "Stay at home, avoid group activities, and stock up on supplies and food." This message is clear for seniors with adequate resources. But how about those low-income seniors who lack adequate nutrition and access to healthy food on an everyday basis?
Solutions That Target Food-Insecure Older Adults
Goger, whose studies focus on workforce development policy and inclusive economic development, added that these are the millions of seniors in the United States who are in danger of malnutrition and hunger. Social distance is important to limit the spread of coronavirus but this also means limiting people from accessing group means in food banks and senior centers. Millions of these older adults cannot also stock up on supplies and foods and even if the can, they will still need transportation assistance to go to the grocery store and back to their home. Goger encouraged the responders to opt for target solutions that will focus on food-insecure as well as socially isolated seniors. They can also consider other people with barriers to healthy food access.
|Millions of seniors in the United States who are in danger of malnutrition and hunger. / Photo by: Nuttapong Punna via 123rf|
Economically Insecure American Seniors
Often, the economic insecurity scale among seniors in the US goes unnoticed but millions of them have trouble accessing affordable food and they would have to spend over 30% of their income on housing. A study has also shown that there were more food insecure older adults in the country in 2015 than during the Great Recession and its aftermath. The U.S. Census Bureau shared that there were 4.7 million (9.2%) of the population ages 65 and older living below the 100% poverty level in 2017. There are two different measures of poverty: the official poverty measure was $11,756 for an individual age 65 or older but the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) thresholds vary by homeownership status and geographic area. Thus, the SPM reflects liabilities, financial resources, in-kind benefits, and out-of-pocket medical spending.
The poverty rate among seniors has also been found to be higher for women. There are 10.7 million (21.0%) older adults that are living in the 100% to 199% poverty threshold in the official poverty measure and 35.7 million (69.9%) within the 200% or above of poverty threshold.
The older adults who are experiencing poverty usually live on fixed incomes and experience difficulty in meeting their daily nutritional needs, making them more vulnerable when an unexpected financial expense or live event occurs. This is because they can’t work for more or have sufficient savings to make up the losses. This situation can be “deadly” during a pandemic, opined Goger.
Food Insecurity and Health Risks
More than 84% of people aged 65 and older are coping with at least one chronic condition, and often more as they age. Five years before a person’s death, their out-of-pocket medical expenditures total over $38,000. This is according to the National Council on Aging, an organization in Virginia with a mission of improving the lives of millions of older adults. Their age group is likely to have chronic health conditions, including heart disease or diabetes, the main reason why coronavirus is dangerous for older adults.
Group meals are provided to senior centers in the country as part of the Older Americans Act and many of them rely on this setting for their nutrition. However, because of the pandemic, many food banks and senior centers in the country have already closed. Some companies stopped providing in-house meals and opted for the to-go model.
Taking all of these things together, food insecurity, health, and financial aspects leave low-income seniors in a “precarious” position. They are being protected by restricting nursing home visits and social distancing from contracting the virus for the short-term but it also leaves them at increased risk for hunger, malnutrition, and other adverse health effects, such as depression. Policymakers need to take the necessary steps to make sure that the elderly populations also have consistent access to healthy food. Awareness campaigns about emergency aid programs and food assistance that focus on older adults are some of the short-term solutions suggested by Goger.
Malnutrition in the Elderly
In a separate study titled “Malnutrition in the Elderly: A Multifactorial Failure to Thrive,” author Carol Evans, RNP, MS, MA mentioned how malnutrition and poor nutritional status in the elderly population are important areas of concern because it contributes to the progressive decline in their health and reduced cognitive functional and physical status. The incidence of malnutrition ranges from 12 to 50% among hospitalized seniors and from 23 to 60% among the institutionalized older adults. As of 2018, the population of adults aged 65 and older in the US, by state, are as follows: California (5,667,337), Florida (4,358,784), Texas (3,599,599), New York (3,212,065), Pennsylvania (2,332,369), Ohio (1,996,163), Illinois (1,990,548), Michigan (1,720,453), North Carolina (1,688,574), Georgia (1,456,428), Virginia (1,318,225), Arizona (1,259,103), Washington (1,163,987), Massachusetts (1,137,541), Tennessee (1,104,797), Indiana (1,051,146), Missouri (1,035,074), and other states with below than 1 million total population of older adults aged 65 and older. This data was provided by the database company Statista.
There are both short term and long-term solutions and policies that the state can use to ease the risk of elderly facing food insecurity. One long term approach, for instance, would be making grocery delivery affordable and accessible, especially to people facing mobility barriers. Taking steps to increase the elderly’s access to nutritious and healthy food will not just improve their health but save their lives beyond the pandemic.