Anyone who works closely with older people within the community will tell you that many simply cannot afford, or indeed are physically incapable of, preparing regular meals for themselves, let alone healthy food containing the basic nutritional requirements that can stave off malnutrition.
In this respect, malnutrition presents a particular challenge for those catering for older people in a care home environment, as many individuals are already severely malnourished when they first enter residential care.
To put the problem in its context, the Care Standards Act 2000, which covers every aspect of care home provision, including guidelines on producing healthy meals, has already made a huge impact on caring for the increasing number of elderly people, suffering from malnutrition. Well-run care homes understand the complex implications of serving flavoursome food that will literally go down well with the majority of their clients.
Indeed, the obligatory balanced and varied diet provided by most registered UK care homes is proving to be a nutritional safety net for elderly residents whose ill-nourished condition would otherwise deteriorate.
Current Government nutritional guidelines are reassuringly specific. Recommendations include a diet based on reducing the total amount of fat including saturated fat; reducing sugar intake by half; increasing dietary fibre intake by half and eating less salt. In practical terms, this means eating fewer fried foods, crisps, biscuits, cakes, pastries, sweets and sugary drinks, while eating more low-sugar cereals, wholegrain bread, pasta and potatoes. In addition, the golden rule of five portions of fruit and/or vegetables is essential for maintaining a healthy diet. In addition, the DoH report entitled The Nutrition of Elderly People recommends that all older people should be: provided with a diet that is generous in energy (calories), unless individuals are significantly overweight or obese; offered a wide range of nutrient-dense foods that provide adequate vitamins, minerals and protein; given a diet rich in fibre combined with adequate fluid intake; encouraged to increase their intake of vitamins C and D.
However, there's more to the nutritional care of the elderly than fresh fodder rich in vitamins, minerals, and dietary supplements. In fact, the non-biological functions of food often have a greater impact on the overall well-being of older people, especially when they are trying to cling to an element of autonomy in their lives. Established food preferences, eating patterns, cultural background and religious beliefs are all highly emotive factors that should always be taken into consideration when planning menus for older people.
After all, food fulfils many social, psychological and emotional functions, apart from meeting the fundamental need of relieving hunger. And nowhere is this more noticeable than among the elderly population, where food tends to play an exaggerated part in nourishing both body and soul. Food is often one of the main pleasures that elderly people can enjoy, on a daily basis, and can prove a life-line in more ways than one.
It is imperative, therefore, that the meals served in care homes meet both the nutritional and psychological requirements of their residents. Good nutrition is important for both the long- and short-term health and well-being of the elderly. Wholesome food also affects the ability of people in their later years to recover from malnutrition more rapidly and has been shown to stave off a wide range of physical and mental disorders.
In short, mealtimes should be viewed as an opportunity for socialising, savouring and enjoying the simple pleasures in life. Choice of ingredients, food combinations and flavours, as well as presentation and service can all play an important part in "keeping one's spirits up" in an elderly community.
Simple, nutritious food is a known recipe for happiness and longevity.