Is Food the Best Medicine?
During December we received many kind food donations for our members in time for Christmas, including M & S food hampers donated by The Rotary, Pheasant Casseroles from the Countryside Trust, biscuits and hand-written cards from a primary school class. Extremely generous and kind, and our members were really overwhelmed with the various food related gifts they received.
Food is the thing that sustains us all year round, it keeps us alive, it connects us socially and if you’re anything like me, you probably think about food hundreds of times a day. Yet every week we see first-hand the hardships facing older people trying to eat well; care visits reduced to 20 minutes making it impossible for the carer to cook a meal and only a cold snack can be provided, someone home from hospital being told they’d need to wait 17 days for a care package, carers writing requests on our shopping lists to make sure ready meals we bring can be microwaved in less than 6 minutes. If society is measured by how well it values and cares for its older people, then we should be ashamed that 1 in 10 older people in Scotland today are malnourished or at risk of becoming malnourished.
Food Train was set up simply to help older people struggling with the weekly grocery shopping, making sure they could get enough food each week to eat well. Since we started in 1995 the world has changed and there are many ‘mores’ that have emerged in 24 years - the older population has grown and aged significantly, more older people are living with long term conditions, more older people are being cared for at home rather than care homes, more older people are requiring care at home, more older people are lonely, more older people are malnourished, more older people are dying where malnutrition is a factor, more older people are falling, more older people are staying longer in hospital than necessary, more older people being admitted to hospital unnecessarily and more older people have dementia. Simple population maths tells us not to be surprised by the mores. However, what does raise concerns is the ‘less’ figures that run alongside the mores; less community meals services, less hot meal provision, less day centres and lunch clubs, less time in care at home packages, less local shops and less funding for community food activities.
An article caught my eye this week that struck a chord. The Telegraph covered a pilot scheme in 5 trusts across England and Scotland giving older patients with hip fractures one extra nutritious meal a day, accompanied by another human being. The experts behind the pilot say older people are not getting enough to eat in hospitals! Results are overwhelming, length of stay cut by 5 days, death rates cut by 5.5%, savings of £1437 per patient identified, the older patients’ morale boosted. The ever-present cynic in me thinks, imagine anyone being surprised that eating more, with the company of another person, brings a good outcome, and why have things got so bad the NHS is not giving people enough to eat in the first place? If we can’t even feed people enough in hospital where staff are present 24 hours per day, then how can we expect community volunteers, paid and unpaid carers to do the same for older people in need living at home on reducing budgets and 20-minute visits. The ever-hopeful side of me knows this pilot idea could be tested with older people living at home, for example, giving carers extra time to cook full meals and prepare extra snacks, respite time for unpaid carers to food shop and cook meals, extra funding for befriending projects to add hot meals to activities, extra funding for community meals and food access services, extra funding for day centres and lunch clubs to give out extra food to older members to take home. If the impact achieved during a short stay in hospital is so significant, don't we owe it to older people now and in the future to ensure they can eat well and live well all year round.