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 diet 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,” says Cat Hamilton, director of member services with the Arkansas Health Care Association and Arkansas Assisted Living Association. “This difficulty limits many Arkansas senior adults in their ability to prepare well balanced, healthy meals.”

These are problems that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to limit trips and follow social distancing guidelines contributes to limited mobility and isolation, perhaps further keeping seniors from accessing nutritious options.

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 of 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,” says Kasandra Williams, 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.”

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

"The economic recession that started at the beginning of COVID (spring 2020) has made it even more difficult for seniors financially," Williams says. "Seniors are having to choose between buying food or buying medication, as well as other necessities to meet their basic needs."

These barriers 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 says. “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 guide seniors and caregivers can use to determine the right meal and nutrient schedule for one’s age and activity level.

But, as Williams notes, many seniors don’t have a full service grocery store nearby or have 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 says.

Fighting Hunger, Isolation

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

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

Senior centers allow seniors to drive up and receive meals to go, while seniors who can't drive or lack transportation can have meals delivered for the week.

The Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance has developed virtual strategies through their Cooking Matters program to tackle food insecurity through education and fundraising events.

The UAMS Centers on Aging will utilize their HEAT program to deliver education, healthy recipes and food items throughout the state. Federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) continue to offer benefits.


DID YOU KNOW?

► Arkansas is No. 5 in the nation for senior food insecurity.

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

19.6% of Arkansans over 60 are food insecure or face the threat of becoming so.

Source: ARHungerAlliance.org