Seniors’ Nutrition a Critical Issue in Canada: One-third of Canadian Seniors at Risk of Malnutrition

 By Arlene Adamson

Too many seniors are not able to afford enough healthy food – or enough food at all, we learned last week from a Statistics Canada study.  The data, gathered from the 2008/2009 Canadian Community Health Survey, revealed that a full one third of our senior citizens are at risk of malnutrition – a number that should shake us out of any complacency concerning the state of seniors’ health in this country.

Many of the 15,669 seniors who responded to a list of questions said they rarely ate fruits and vegetables, avoided cooking, and sometimes skipped entire meals. More women than men were in danger of poor nutrition with 29 per cent of men at risk, and a whopping 38 per cent of senior women likely to face malnourishment.

Unfortunately the finding isn’t new but echoes previous studies signalling that seniors’ nutrition is a critical issue, and one that all citizens and governments can – and should – help remedy.

An earlier study by Dr. Heather Keller published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, similarly found that limited money and health problems led some seniors to commonly choose convenience foods that lack proper nutrition.  Prepared foods, such as canned soups, are  often high in sodium which can lead to increased risk of strokes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

While affordability and convenience of healthy foods are obvious concerns, the Statistics Canada findings demonstrate other less obvious social and environmental factors are also at play in the health of our seniors.

The built environment can create obstacles separating older people from access to nutritious meals.  Seniors often have difficulty leaving home to buy food because of inadequate public transit and/or accessibility issues.  Improving public transit and creating barrier-free environments are important solutions, but another option would be to provide affordable housing in safe, walkable neighbourhoods.

Such communities could also help establish important social connections that lay the foundation for good nutrition.

The Statistics Canada survey, for example, found that living alone compounded dietary problems, especially for men. About half of seniors who lived alone were in danger of malnourishment, which for men, amounted to double the number at risk than if they lived with someone else, such as a spouse.

Loneliness can be a critical factor for isolated seniors with few social connections.  Depression has been linked to malnutrition in past studies that show seniors with poor mental health often aren’t motivated to cook meals or may not have the faculties to prepare their own food.

In contrast, those who are socially active as volunteers, with their religious communities, with sports or physical activities show less risk of nutritional deficiency – a fact also echoed in the Statistics Canada findings.  This demonstrates the importance of accessible social spaces for seniors to remain vibrant participants in our community.  We can all do our part to actively include seniors as a vital part of our community.

One of the more unappreciated outcomes of the Statistics Canada survey was the relationship between dental health and malnutrition.  Seniors with poor dental health were more likely to eat poorly, especially among women. Being unable to chew food because of sore or missing teeth or poor quality dentures impedes healthy eating, highlighting the importance of access to affordable quality health care that includes dental care.

We talk a great deal in Canada about food security and how to ensure that our children are healthy and well-fed; we mustn’t forget about our seniors too.  It’s time we started a national conversation about how to keep our seniors healthy.  Provincially, an ombudsman – or equivalent – dedicated to overseeing the growing population of retired Canadians would help ensure that each and every senior has enough support as they age.

Seniors have raised families and contributed to their communities.  They’ve helped to keep their children and their grandchildren fed and healthy for a generation, teaching them the wisdom behind a nutritious meal.  Isn’t it time we offered them the same in return?

Arlene Adamson is the CEO of Silvera for Seniors, a non-profit organizations which provides a home to over 1,500 lower-income Calgary seniors.  She is also co-chair of the Seniors and Special Populations Sector Housing Committee, and on the steering committee for the province of Alberta’s Housing Access Link.