12 Oct 2016

The Government, local authorities, the voluntary sector and the food industry could do more to ensure older people have access to a healthy, affordable and safe diet – although a focus on improving online shopping for the over 60s is not the answer, research has found.

Making store offers suitable for older people, ensuring individuals have strong social networks and enhancing meals-on-wheels services and lunch clubs are key measures that would benefit older people, the University of Hertfordshire’s Food Provision in Later Life study concludes.

The research by the University’s Food and Public Health Research Unit, funded by the Food Standards Agency and the Economic and Social Research Council, will be showcased at Food Matters Live at ExCeL in London from November 22-24.

The study captured older people’s experiences of sourcing, buying and consuming food so that government agencies, voluntary organisations and food businesses can better understand how to support the older generation to eat healthily and safely.

Evidence shows that people over 60 years old are especially vulnerable to foodborne illnesses such as listeriosis and concerns around obesity in the younger generation have tended to overshadow the issue of malnutrition among the older population.

Academics studied the food habits and lifestyles of men and women aged between 60 and 93 from 25 households in Hertfordshire.

They interviewed each household, explored their kitchen cupboards, fridges and freezers, accompanied them on trips to the supermarket, lunch clubs or their allotments, and observed meals-on-wheels deliveries. Participants also recorded their own food habits, providing well over 1,000 photographs and 40 hours of video footage.

The findings will be presented at Food Matters Live in an interactive exhibition called Twenty-Five: lives seen through food.

Wendy Wills, Professor of Food and Public Health and Director of the Centre for Research in Primary and Community Care at University of Hertfordshire, said: “Our research shows many households are very good at adapting their food habits to address their changing needs but some older people are likely to have a wide range of factors working against them when it comes to sourcing, buying and preparing food.

“Industry and policymakers have a real opportunity to introduce practical and cost-effective measures that support older people to enjoy a healthy, affordable and safe diet, and develop, or continue with, a positive relationship with food.”

Online shopping and isolation

No one in the study shopped online for food even though most households were regular Internet users.

Policymakers and the food industry have long considered new ways to encourage wider take up of online shopping among the over 60s.

However, those interviewed stressed how much they valued the opportunity for social interaction that comes with a trip to the supermarket or to local shops. Shopping online could contribute to a greater feeling of isolation and older people becoming less involved in food provisioning, Professor Wills said.

Store promotions for older people

Many study participants felt disenfranchised from supermarkets’ in-store offers that tend to target families. Money-off coupons are often aimed at people who spend a minimum amount. However many older people limit how much they spend and how much food they buy so they can carry it home easily and minimise waste.

Researchers say in-store marketing campaigns targeted specifically at older people are likely to be well received. Slower checkout lanes for older people would improve the shopping experience, they said.

Enhancing community food services

Community food services, including lunch clubs, meals-on-wheels and frozen food deliveries, play an important role in how older people acquire food. But many felt the services were not meeting their needs. In some cases home delivery services reinforced a sense of isolation and lack of opportunity for physical and social activity. There was evidence of declining lunch club attendance; a lack of transport to lunch clubs was often a barrier.

Professor Wills said: “There is a need to rejuvenate and rebrand community food services to emphasise that they do offer older people a range of engaging activities that go beyond food, from nutrition screening and befriending schemes to exercise sessions.”

Getting health messages across

Researchers believe that advice around nutrition, food and health for older people is often skewed towards residents of care homes rather than those living independently in the community and is biased towards the prevention of obesity.

Older people living in the community are more likely to need guidance about avoiding malnutrition and dehydration and ensuring food is safe to eat than the general population. Many are sceptical of campaigns to raise awareness of food scares unless they hear about them from a trusted source.

Professor Wills said: “This is why the roles of GPs, carers, wardens in sheltered housing units, charities and meals-on-wheels services are crucial. They play an important role in many people’s lives and are a much more useful conduit to reach an older person as opposed to impersonal, abstract digital messages and campaigns from Government sources.”

To find out more or to explore how the University of Hertfordshire’s Food and Public Health Research Unit can inform developments in the food and drink sector and support policymakers, contact Professor Wendy Wills on w.j.wills@herts.ac.uk or 01707 286 380.

Findings from the University of Hertfordshire study Food Provision in Later Life will be showcased at Food Matters Live 2016.