We have all done it. Skipped a meal, grabbed a granola bar instead of breakfast, or even nuked a Ramen Noodle package – hey, add a little cheese and they aren’t so bad!
Packed schedules of comings and goings, meetings and activities lasting well into the evenings, and rendezvous with friends for a quick happy hour (more like a happy minute) make fitting in a proper meal, or a meal at all, quite the challenge. The tradition of coming together over a daily meal to share not only the food but the events of the day, has been lost to driving up and down the Valley, to and from work, sporting practices (alone or in teams) and local happenings.
Our older population experiences the same meal-deprivation but for different reasons. Along with the trickle effect of our families and friends’ schedules, physiological changes affect eating habits, as we grow concerned about weight gain or loss, the slowing of our metabolisms and/or the ability to exercise-it-off. Add in some loss of smell or taste, dental issues, swallowing challenges and lack of energy (you know, after climbing those 14ers), and the act of eating is not only boring, it can be downright unpleasant. Even if we are not hungry, malnutrition caused by these accumulating factors can be detrimental to a healthy lifestyle.
Malnutrition comes in many shapes and sizes and affects a variety of individuals. According to the National Council on Aging, over 9 million older adults can’t afford nutritious food while one in four of the 65-plus population skips meals or eats reduced portions (i.e. making one meal last for several days). Malnutrition can affect older adults in several ways including creating weakness in muscles and bones, deficiency in your immune system and harmful effects to your organs. It gets worse from there – the snowball effect. Weakness in muscles can lead to falls, the leading cause of death and injury among older adults.
The immune system’s ability to fight off illness and infection is especially important as we age, as conditions such as pneumonia can quickly set in and stop healing in its tracks. Deficiencies in protein and other nutrients may accelerate the loss of vision and brain neurons so you will not only be unable to see, but may also experience impaired speech, coordination and memory. I knew those protein bars were important. Preventing malnutrition is accomplished by following a few simple steps within your daily diet (making better food selections) and adding an oral nutritional supplement – a little attention goes a long way.
There are other barriers to eating that may not be as evident as the food choices we make. One is the ability to drive to purchase food or attend a restaurant or meal site. This can be especially heightened due to seasonal conditions when the roads become dangerously icy. I was actually talking to a caregiver about delivering meals to an older resident who no longer drives, when she was struck from behind – talk about being smacked with reality! Lack of transportation is directly linked to hunger and the resulting malnutrition – welcome to rural America.
Poor oral health and/or ill-fitting dentures can lead to unintended weight loss, as even the thought of chewing is painful. One can only tolerate so many days of liquid diets (and I don’t mean the kind you enjoyed in college). Several medications affect appetite by causing gastrointestinal discomfort and/or and robbing patients of the ability to smell and taste, making eating a less-than-enjoyable task.
Living alone or experiencing feelings of loneliness can lead to malnutrition in older adults, as do boredom and depression. Dementia and its associated symptoms can also be a contributing factor. The loss of appetite associated with all of these conditions unleashes an avalanche of resulting risks including weakness, decreased mobility, weight loss and fatigue. An endless cycle of helplessness ensues.
There are warning signs including bruising or delayed wound healing, irritability, fatigue, and unplanned weight loss. I have seen these symptoms in visits with our older community members over the years. It made me wonder about the options available throughout the Valley.
Particularly in the rural parts of the Mid-Valley, the options are few and far between. Think of it – if you missed a meal, you have the luxury of stopping at Whole Foods or City Market to obtain a grab-and-go option for your nightly nutrition. You may stop at a local dining establishment, or even some of the gas station grills, to make up for calories lost. For a majority of the older adults in the more remote parts – even Carbondale – there are few choices. Pizza delivery is about the best we can hope for.
Pitkin County does not provide their delicious home-delivered meals beyond Snowmass Canyon; meaning about half their 60-plus population does not even have the option to receive what the Upper Valley does, four days per week (except holidays, leaving three-four consecutive days without any meals).
Garfield County does not provide any home delivered options for its Mid-Valley residents in Carbondale and surrounding areas. Valley View Hospital’s Meals on Wheels is currently offered within the Glenwood Springs city limits. Garfield County does serve lunch, once a week, to a full room at Crystal Meadows. Great meal for 18-20 residents but only once a week. Every little bit counts?
Luckily, Eagle County prepares meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays and makes them available to 60-plus residents throughout the Mid-Valley. The meal attracts 40-60 Mid-Valley residents. Volunteers are delivering these nutritious meals to older adults in Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle Counties. In fact, only 50 percent of those benefiting from these meals are in Eagle County. Thank goodness for their generosity!
I also learned that nonprofits, operating well beyond their mission statements, were kindly cooking (at volunteers’ homes) and delivering meals to older residents throughout the Valley (sometimes driving from Aspen to Carbondale). Angels among us. As the word got out, their numbers grew and even they are unable to keep up with demand.
How did we get to this point? We know the numbers of the older population have grown and are expected to nearly double. When did eating become so unimportant? We have locally funded programs for “cradle-to-career” activities. What happens after you have given your all to your community and are still living here? Reminds me of a Seinfeld episode … No food for you!
The good news is that now that we have been made aware of these conditions, we are rallying partners to help. Valley View Hospital is working on extending their service to Carbondale. Carbondale Rec Center is discussing the possibility of a monthly community dinner. We are enlisting the help of local nonprofits to add additional meal offerings, at sites in the Mid-Valley, throughout the week.
It takes a village and we are up to the task. If you are interested in helping – let us know. Eating IS important. Let’s make sure every member of our community has an opportunity to break bread – regularly.
Mary Kenyon is a member and advocate of our older population and is passionate about identifying issues and resources for elders in the Valley. Email her your challenges and suggested solutions at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-274-2632.