With healthy options on so many menus these days, perhaps we have no one to blame but ourselves for bad calories consumed.

Even when stuck at home at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, all it took was a phone call or a few minutes online to get an Uber Eats driver to bring something to your door that was actually good for you.

That hasn’t been the case for many of Arkansas’ seniors, who don’t have the abundance of choices enjoyed by their younger, more independent counterparts.

Isolation, lack of mobility, medication, fixed income and the general effects of aging are just some of the factors that can leave seniors lacking the nutrients in their diet they need to maintain their health. In a state like Arkansas, where 41% of the population lives in rural counties — areas where seniors across the nation are more at risk of food insecurity — it can often be a location that prevents good nutrition.

Many seniors live in “food deserts,” places where the closest food source might only be a gas station or convenience store, while the grocery stores with the fresh vegetables are several miles away.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these problems and created new ones in the form of closed kitchens and shortages of food bank volunteers to run deliveries. For their own safety, seniors have had to limit trips and follow social distancing guidelines, contributing to isolation — even from family members — that further bars access to nutritious options.

Jeanne Wei, executive director of UAMS’ Donald W. Reynolds Department of Geriatrics, said the pandemic has had “a double whammy, triple whammy, quadruple whammy” effect on senior nutrition.

“Even if you deliver the food they need help eating the food. They need help unwrapping the packages,” Wei said.

Cat Hamilton, director of member services with the Arkansas Health Care Association, said that seniors, faced with fixed incomes, often find the cost of healthy items like daily fresh fruits and vegetables is a deterrent and leads them to make less healthy choices.

Wei noted that as people age, physical issues also affect their nutrition. Gum recession and tooth loss, a loss of taste or use of medications that blunt the sense of taste, strokes, reflux and difficulties with the voluntary/involuntary act of swallowing can contribute to a loss of appetite or missed meals.

What to Eat

We all need our vitamins but seniors especially should have regular intakes of omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium and potassium that are found in certain foods. Dietary supplements can help, but nothing beats food.

To ensure an adequate supply of nutrients, a senior’s diet should include the following:

  • Whole fruits and vegetables — Choose fruits and vegetables with deeply colored flesh; choose canned fruits and vegetables that are low sodium or packed in their own juices.
  • Healthy oils — Use liquid vegetable oils and soft margarines that contain fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Herbs and spices — Use a variety of herbs and spices to increase flavor and to help avoid using salt.
  • Fluids — Provide plenty. They can come from water, tea, coffee, soups and fruits and vegetables.
  • Grains — Whole grains and fortified foods are sources of fiber and B vitamins.
  • Dairy — Serve fat-free and low-fat milk, cheeses and yogurts to provide calcium, protein and other nutrients.
  • Proteins — Many nutrients are found in protein-rich foods like lean meat, fish and beans.

Caregiver Tips for Battling Senior Hunger

  • Have a regular snack schedule
  • Make out grocery lists together
  • Make grocery shopping an occasion, involving family or friends
  • Utilize assistance programs and facilities like food banks, Meals on Wheels, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), senior centers, farmers market programs and local Area Agencies on Aging
  • Serve smaller portions of high nutrient foods and plenty of fluids if there are physical difficulties related to eating
  • Reduce the need for utensils
  • Keep easy to eat snacks around
  • Make milkshakes or smoothies
  • Keep track of what works
Sources: UAMS, Arkansas Health Care Association, 2021 Rural Profile of Arkansas, arhungeralliance.org, americashealthrankings.org, aginginarkansas.com, aarp.com, dailycaring.com


► Arkansas is No. 10 in the nation for senior food insecurity.

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

17.5% of Arkansans over 60 are food insecure or face the threat of becoming so.

Source: ARHungerAlliance.org