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Starting the Dialogue with your Aging Parents: Are you Hungry?

June 3, 2013

Have you ever been hungry?

Have you ever been hungry and not been able to pay for food to eat?

Do you ever stop to think if those in your neighborhood, down the block, in your town, city, or community are going hungry?

Do you know that many senior citizens eat less than one meal a day?

It may surprise you to know that the old woman down the street lives on less than $700 a month, doesn’t receive food stamps, and rarely eats more that 500 calories in one day. This isn’t an isolated case or something that happens in just the poorer neighborhoods, but is a common, every day phenomenon rarely addressed by the media and unknown to most of us going about our daily business.

As a child my mother used to guilt us into eating everything on our plate by talking about starving children in other parts of the world. I never heard anything about the starving woman or elderly gentleman at the end of the street. How many of you feed your family and then blithely throw away left overs or take for granted that there will always be something in the cabinet to eat.

I started thinking about this a few weeks back and realized after meeting with one of my patients that this is not an uncommon situation. There are at least two food banks in the small town I live in. I believe both are run by churches. I hadn’t really given it a thought except to donate canned goods, write a check once in a while, and occasionally go down to help pack up boxes of food when I have some extra time.

Back to the patient. He came in and we were discussing his multiple health issues and how he could possibly feel better if he were to eat a healthy diet. I laid out some meal plans for him and he nodded his agreement. Then I asked him how motivated he was to incorporate some of these things into his meal planning and diet.

He looked at me with sad eyes filled with tears and asked where the money was going to come from to pay for the food.

I asked him to explain. He said, “I get $530 a month from Social Security and $78 in food stamps.” My rent is $350 a month. My electric bill is about $50 a month if I am careful. My medications cost me $103 a month. That leaves me $27 for everything else (bus fare, the newspaper, and whatever food I need beyond my $78 in food stamps. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, and most days I don’t eat anything but a bowl of cereal.”

Needless to say, I had tears in my own eyes by the time he finished speaking. I asked if ever went to the food banks and he said that yes, he went when he could afford the bus fare. The food banks dispense boxes to people at most twice a month and the amount of food is based on the donations they receive. Yes, there is a senior center in town which serves a full meal twice a week, but the participants must provide their own transportation. There is no Meals on Wheels program locally for shut ins or those without transportation.

A few days later I had a woman with a similar story. She gets by with eggs from the few hens she has and plants a garden in the summer. She can barely walk so caring for her chickens and her garden takes almost all of her strength. She eats fairly well in the summer time, but late fall, winter, and early spring are lean times for her in terms of food. She has a car, but can no longer drive it and there is little room in her budget for bus fare.

Both of these situations got me thinking and doing some research. Hunger is rampant among the elderly in our small town. The kids get breakfast and lunch at school and most of the poorer families have a good food stamp allotment, but our seniors are literally starving.

As a nurse I know that proper nutrition can go a long way in enhancing quality of life and even decreasing symptoms of diabetes, arthritis, mental illness, gastrointestinal disorders, heart disease, and many other lesser known illnesses. A body cannot fight off infection without a strong immune system. The immune system can’t function if it doesn’t have fuel in the form of food. Cancer thrives in a debilitated body. How can a body be strong if there isn’t enough food to feed it and keep it functioning.

Does any of this alarm you, tug at your heart, cry out to you for a call to action?

If so here are some things that you can do to help:

  1. Get to know your neighbors. Say hello to the people along your street, on your block, in your neighborhood.
  2. Once you get to know people gently find out if they have enough food to eat–especially the elderly folks.
  3. Be on the lookout for senior citizens who don’t have many visitors (no family, few friends, inability to get out and socialize).
  4. Donate food, money, and time to your local food banks.
  5. Offer to drive people to the senior center meal site who don’t have money or a means of transportation.
  6. Look into establishing a Meals on Wheels program in your community or volunteering for the one that is already there.
  7. If you find someone (or many someones) who need additional food see if they would accept a meal from you once a week. Ok, I know you think this means more work for you, but just fix a plate of roast, mashed potatoes and green beans from what you’re already making for Sunday dinner or throw in an extra handful of pasta on spaghetti night, another piece of garlic bread, and a few more lettuce leaves and tomatoes into the salad. We’re talking pennies added to your food budget and no extra time.
  8. Think about how you can get your friends, coworkers, Bunko buddies, or other family members involved in similar efforts. In other words be an advocate to alleviate hunger in your area and spread the word.
  9. Find out if your own aging parents are dealing with hunger issues. If so, forget doo-dads and baubles for birthdays and Christmas–instead gift them with healthy food. If they live close by include them in a meal once a week (or more often if possible). Invite your elderly hungry neighbors to join your family for a meal once a week or whatever works for you. This will help them in terms of food, but also in terms of socialization. You will all benefit.
  10. Don’t assume someone else will solve the problem. Get your religious organization, work group, women’s club or whatever involved and let’s make this a community priority that spreads nationwide!

Are you with me? I hope so because this has positive impacts for everyone. I hope this post gets you thinking and more importantly, acting on behalf of others.

Please feel free to post your thoughts and stories in the comments.

I appreciate my readers and am grateful for all feedback. Have a wonderful week!

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2013 4:55 pm

    Such meaningful and important information! I agree that many of us don’t give these kinds of issues enough thought, and action. Thank you Laura. I urge everyone who reads this to share it wherever they can.

  2. June 3, 2013 6:43 pm

    I hope you don’t mind that I shared this on Facebook. This is a problem even for elderly people who have the money to buy food. In my own family, my father gradually stopped cooking and strongly preferred to eat and drink in social situations. Left to his own devices, he would barely eat anything, but if one or more of us was with him at mealtime, he would eat heartily and well.
    I set him up with his local Meals-on-Wheels chapter to ensure one hot meal a day– but he would only eat a bit of it, put the rest in the fridge, and then the next day when a fresh hot meal arrived, he’d put that in the fridge and take out the cold meal fro the day before.
    Hunger in the elderly is a complex issue, with mental health(demntia, medication issues) and social aspects (loneliness), as well as the physiological (the diminution of taste and smell with age) and the financial (not having the wherewithal to purchase adequate food for one’s needs).
    It takes a village to keep our elders safe and fed as well.

  3. June 3, 2013 7:41 pm

    I absolutely agree with what you are saying and experiencing. My parents have gone from being hearty eaters, to not wanting anything, to losing the taste for food and back again based on the amount of pain they are in, sleep they get, and overall mental attitude. Our elderly need attention and socialization on a regular basis. Great comment.

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