If you think of the biggest health threats facing many older adults in America, your list may likely include cognitive decline, vision and hearing impairments, heart disease, strokes and other ailments.
While each of these health issues is a threat to many American seniors, it turns out that hunger is the public health issue that is quickly becoming dire for many older adults.
Here we take a closer look at what senior hunger means, why the threat is getting worse and what can be done about it.
Key Facts About Senior Hunger
- Nearly one in six seniors in America faces the threat of hunger or malnourishment (around 8 million total).
- The rate of hunger among older adults increased 65 percent from 2007 to 2014.
- One-third of all seniors report trimming the size of their meals, skipping meals completely or buying less nutritious foods because they didn’t have enough money for a proper meal.
- Senior hunger costs the U.S. healthcare system $130 billion per year.
Defining Senior Hunger
The Journals of Nutrition defines food insecurity as having “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
In other words, being food insecure means not having access to the necessary foods and nutrients needed to sustain a healthy lifestyle. A food insecure senior may have enough food to keep them full, but the food they have may not be up to recommended nutritional and dietary standards.
Being food insecure doesn’t necessarily mean that an older adult is facing hunger, but it does mean that the treat of hunger is real.
Many seniors may also face a food hardship, which is a term used to describe a situation in which an older adult cuts down the size of meals, skips meals outright or buys less nutritious foods because of a lack of sufficient funds.
How Senior Hunger Happens
There is no single reason for an increasing threat of senior hunger, but some factors that disproportionately face some seniors can contribute to the problem.
- Financial difficulties
Food insecurity often goes hand-in-hand with poverty, and the 2008 economic recession cracked the nest eggs of many seniors as stocks, pensions and 401(k) savings sank.
Many seniors who have little remaining income or savings in retirement may be faced with the difficult decision of buying food vs. buying their medication, paying for insurance or making other necessary financial decisions.
- Physical limitations
Many older adults — particularly those who are over age 75 — may face difficulties getting to the grocery store to buy food.
Even when a senior is able to get the nutritional food they need, cooking and eating it can be troublesome. A senior with arthritis may struggle to open cans and perform other cooking tasks, and someone with mobility challenges may have trouble getting around the the kitchen.
An older adult in this situation may unfortunately be forced to skip some meals because of their limitations.
- Dental problems
Oral hygiene is a common problem for seniors as their teeth weaken and fall out with age. Not having a healthy set of teeth can cause many seniors to opt solely for soft foods like applesauce and soup, which can rob them of eating a proper diet.
- Food deserts
A food desert is a residential area void of a ready supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods, typically due to a lack of grocery stores or farmers’ markets.
Food deserts are typically found in impoverished areas. The United States Department of Agriculture has a food desert map you can use to see if you or a loved one reside in such an area.
How Hunger Affects Older Adults
While hunger is in and of itself a danger for the health of many older Americans, it can also directly threaten various other aspects of a senior’s wellness.
- Physical health
Not getting the proper nutrition can lead to an array of health issues, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, an unhealthy weight, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke and more. Malnutrition can even lead to certain eating disorders among seniors.
Seniors are already at an increased risk of falls, and a malnourished senior who is weakened or light-headed by a lack of nutrition may face an even greater risk.
- Mental health
A food shortage can cause a senior to spiral into a state of depression, stress, mental fatigue, sleeplessness, isolation or anger that can potentially be dangerous.
One study, released by Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH), found that food insecure seniors were 60 percent more likely to experience depression.
- Financial resources
A senior facing the threat of hunger may be forced to make some difficult decisions. Should they spend their limited amount of money to buy food or to buy prescription medication? Can they purchase groceries and still pay the heating bill?
The threat of hunger can cause a senior citizen to compromise how they spend money on other necessary items and services, which can lead to a spiral of increasingly unhealthy and dangerous situations.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Certain demographics within the senior community may suffer from an increased threat of going hungry.
- Disabled seniors
Nearly one-third of food insecure seniors have a disability.
- Younger seniors
Contrary to what you might think, almost two-third of food insecure seniors are under the age of 69.
- Seniors who live with a grandchild
Almost 20 percent of seniors who live with a grandchild are food insecure, possibly due to the higher strain on household resources when both children and older adults live in the home.
- Seniors who live alone
A 2012 study revealed that almost half of all food insecure seniors live by themselves.
- African American and Hispanic seniors
The rate of food insecurity is more than twice as high among African American and Hispanic seniors than for Caucasians.
- Seniors in poverty
Seniors living below the poverty line typically have a difficult time affording healthy foods. Nearly 80 percent of seniors who live below 50 percent of the poverty line suffer from some level of food security.
- Southern seniors
Nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of senior food insecurity are in the southern U.S.
What You Can Do to Help Seniors Facing Hunger
If you suspect someone you know may be suffering from food insecurity, there are a few things you can do to help.
- Offer transportation to and from a grocery store or farmer’s market
By shopping with a senior who is facing food insecurity, you can help them find the foods with the best nutritional and financial value.
- Provide recipe ideas and cooking tips
Many seniors suffer from malnutrition simply because they don’t know what healthy dishes to cook or how to cook them. This is especially true for the widow or widower of a spouse who did all the household cooking for many years.
- Offer help with reading or translating nutrition labels
Reading small labels can be troublesome for seniors who suffer from diminished eyesight.
- Provide assistance with enrollment in programs
Applying for government assistance or reaching out to a nonprofit for help can be confusing or intimidating. You can help someone facing food insecurity get the help they need by helping them through the application process.
- Invite them over for a holiday meal
By inviting a senior into your home for a holiday meal, you can help them avoid going hungry while also giving them an important opportunity for social interaction.
Resources and Organizations Fighting Senior Hunger
There are a number of nonprofit, government and volunteer organizations that help seniors find the nutritional assistance they need to live healthy lives.
One of the most expansive government tools to help combat senior hunger is SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP helps millions of low-income Americans afford food through subsidies from the federal government.
Only 42 percent of all seniors who are eligible for SNAP are enrolled in the program, however. Many seniors may simply not be aware of the program, how it works or that they might be eligible for it. Other seniors may face challenges with technology or mobility that hinders their participation, or they may simply be too proud to admit they need help.
Building awareness is key to encouraging eligible food insecure seniors to enroll in SNAP and begin benefitting from the program.
Use this map to learn more about SNAP in your state and to obtain a SNAP application.
Other government-backed programs that help fight senior hunger include:
- Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)
CSFP supplements the diets of low-income seniors age 60 and over by providing nutritious USDA Foods, such as poultry, fish, canned fruit, vegetables, rice, pasta, peanut butter and more.
- Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)
FDPIR provides USDA Foods to low-income households who live on Indian reservations and to Native Americans residing near reservations. Participating households are given a food package each month, which includes various healthy food items to help them maintain a nutritionally balanced diet.
- Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)
SFMNP awards grants to communities to help them provide low-income seniors with coupons that can be exchanged for eligible food items at farmers’ markets, roadside stands and community supported agriculture programs.
- Older Americans Act (OAA) Nutrition Programs
The Older Americans Act supports two nutrition programs through the Administration for Community Living (ACL):
- The Congregate Nutrition Program serves healthy meals while promoting opportunities for social engagement, volunteer opportunities and health and wellness activities. The program primarily serves seniors who live in group settings, such as senior centers.
- The Home-Delivered Nutrition Program provides healthy meals and wellness checks to older adults who are homebound, and in some cases, to their caregivers and spouses.
Whether it’s providing meals, education or other resources, there are several national and global nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping fight hunger, and some are specifically focused on helping seniors.
- AARP Foundation
The AARP Foundation is an affiliate of the American Association of Retired Persons that works with state and community partners as well as volunteers to help older adults enroll in assistance programs. They also commission research on senior hunger and award grants to fund anti-hunger programs.
- Meals on Wheels
Meals on Wheels serves around one million meals per day to seniors in America. Meals are delivered to the homes of seniors with mobility challenges or are distributed in group settings at churches, community centers and other facilities.
- Generations United
Generations United supports public policy and programs that unite seniors and youth as a way to invest in America’s “bookend generations.” Generations United launched GrandparentsDay.org in an effort to promote intergenerational activism.
- Senior Nutrition Guide
The Senior Nutrition Guide from Feeding America helps program directors better understand how to to address the nutritional needs of the seniors they serve by promoting appropriate meal program planning.
- Next Steps to Better Nutrition
Developed by the National Council on Aging and the American Heart Association, Next Steps to Better Nutrition teaches older adults how to budget for, purchase and cook more nutritional foods.
- MyPlate for Older Adults
MyPlate for Older Adults promotes a set of food groups and nutritional goals that are specific to the health of seniors to encourage a healthy diet coupled with physical activity.
- Healthy Recipes
Healthy Recipes provides a library of affordable and nutritious meals for seniors to prepare at home.
- Feeding America
Feeding America is the leading hunger-relief charity in the U.S. and utilizes a nationwide network of food banks to provide assistance to more than 25 million Americans each year, including nearly three million seniors. Feeding America also provides this healthy recipes library of affordable and nutritious meals for seniors to prepare at home.
- Freedom from Hunger
Established in 1946, Freedom from Hunger combines health and education services to fight hunger and poverty through self-help solutions.
- Bread for the World Institute
The faith-based Bread for the World Institute confronts world leaders about policies to end hunger and provides analysis and education to advocate for necessary policy changes.
- Action Against Hunger
Action Against Hunger aims to end hunger through the detection, prevention and treatment of malnutrition, particularly after emergency situations.
Food pantries provide relief for people of all ages who are suffering from food insecurity.
Findafoodpantry.org contains a searchable database of food pantries across the U.S. Simply enter your ZIP code or your address and click “Go!” to see a list of food pantries in your area, complete with directions and contact information.