People in the prime of life these days have more healthy eating options than ever. You can even make nutritious choices when you hit the drive thru. Oftentimes, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the abundance of bad calories consumed.

That’s not the case for many of Arkansas’ seniors, who face different sets of choices when it comes to eating and numerous roadblocks when it comes to good nutrition.

Isolation, medication, fixed income and the effects of aging are just some of the factors that can leave seniors lacking the nutrients in their diets that they need to maintain their health.

“The affordability of healthy food options impacts intake of daily fresh fruits and vegetables, and often leads to the decision to make alternate, less healthy choices,” said Cat Hamilton, director of member services with the Arkansas Health Care Association and Arkansas Assisted Living Association. “This difficulty limits many Arkansas senior adults their ability to prepare well balanced, healthy meals.”

In a state like Arkansas, where 42% of the population lives in rural counties, it can often be location that keeps seniors from good nutrition.

Beware Food Deserts

“People who don’t have that family support, often older adults, are in the rural areas because most of them live in what we call food deserts,” said KaSandra Williams-Gilbeau, project director at UAMS Southwest in Texarkana. “Maybe there’s just like a Dollar General [nearby] if there is that. But the nearest grocery store may be miles and miles away or maybe there’s a gas station there, but the only thing the gas station sells is fried chicken. All canned stuff. No fruits or vegetables.”

Other issues affecting seniors’ eating choices can be medications that suppress the appetite, decreased mobility, lack of education or awareness, access to transportation and dental or oral health problems.

These barriers can prevent the elderly from getting the nutrients — omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium and potassium — found in certain foods.

Dietary supplements can help, but nothing beats food.

“Food is going to be a great source,” Williams-Gilbeau said. “Our bodies tend to absorb vitamins and minerals from food better.”

Make a Plan

It is important for caregivers to know what foods are best for the elders in their care and to make sure they have access.

The USDA’s MyPlate plan, found at ChooseMyPlate.gov, is a useful guide that seniors and caregivers can use to determine the right meal and nutrient schedule for one’s age and activity level.

“Nutrient rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, meats, beans, nuts are recommended to be included in a well-balanced diet,” Hamilton said. “Often, supplements are necessary to maintain optimal health.”

But, as Williams-Gilbeau noted, many seniors don’t have a full-service grocery store nearby or ready access to transportation.

“I think for rural older adults it’s access to healthier food options as well as a lot of them experience what we call food insecurity where they don’t have enough food to last them throughout the month,” Williams-Gilbeau said.

Fighting Hunger, Isolation

Williams-Gilbeau recommends caregivers or family members make grocery shopping an occasion, which would have the extra benefit of fighting the isolation many seniors face.

“A friend or a family can go grocery shopping with them,” Williams-Gilbeau said. “They can socialize but they also will be able to get the help they need.”

Seniors can also overcome the isolation by utilizing assistance programs and initiatives like Meals on Wheels programs, food banks and more.

“Government agencies, nonprofits, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, DHS, local churches, food pantries and other services dedicated to assisting seniors and their families with such needs,” Hamilton said.


DID YOU KNOW?

► Arkansas has gone from No. 1 to No. 5 in senior food insecurity.

► Many elderly Arkansans must choose between buying food or medication.

► 388,000 Arkansas residents (1 in 8) receive federal food assistance.

Source: ARHungerAlliance.org