In the United States, millions of seniors ages 60 and older face a diverse set of challenges on a regular basis when trying to secure and prepare nutritious food, which may include food insecurity. Seniors who are food insecure may experience barriers to accessing food, reduced quality and variety in their diet, and disrupted food intake, all of which can cause and exacerbate mental and physical health issues.
Feeding America®, a nationwide hunger-relief organization with a network of 200 food banks around the country, works to deeply understand the issue of food insecurity among seniors and partner with communities to resolve this complex challenge. This work led us to partner with the University of South Carolina to complete a comprehensive evaluation study, Senior Food-Assistance, Related Programming, and Seniors’ Experiences Across the Feeding America Network (July 2018). During this study we heard the stories of 147 seniors, one in three of whom lives with diabetes.
Managing diabetes as a senior
The American Diabetes Association reports a quarter of seniors over the age of 65 live with diabetes. The challenges of living with a chronic disease like arthritis, diabetes, and cancer were raised by many senior participants. Through discussion with researchers, seniors emphasized the importance of access to healthy foods, as highlighted in this quote by a senior managing this disease:
“My diabetes is under control now. I was in and out of the hospital for April, June, July. […] At least one or two trips to the hospital is what I had to go because I wasn’t eating properly to hold the diabetes under control. […] You understand that this program is very essential to the senior population […] Do you all realize what you just did? You just put food in the cabinets.”
This senior is not alone in juggling both health concerns and living with food insecurity. Feeding America’s Hunger in America study revealed that among households with a senior served by food banks, 77% have at least one member with high blood pressure and 47% have at least one member with diabetes.
Chronic disease also contributed to an overall lack of mobility among seniors. Many had trouble lifting and carrying the heavy boxes of food distributed through their local food pantries. Others discussed loss of ability to cook, often because of physical, and chronic limitations. One senior told us:
“I don’t feel so I’ll burn my fingers or if I cut, I’ll cut myself. […] I don’t feel with my hands. […] …it’s been diabetic neurotrophy in my hands goes about to here and the same way with my feet, it goes like up to mid-calf. I drop a knife in the kitchen the one day and it hit my foot and I never even knew it. It’s something you learn to deal with, it’s a fence…”
We found that although most seniors preferred fresh produce over canned or dry goods, they were sometimes unable to cook fresh items. In addition, seniors told us they had difficulty affording healthier food items because of high costs at grocery stories. If seniors had limited transportation options, then they were unable to select the best shopping location for affordable foods and/or shop for food frequently. Ultimately, one key finding that our study highlights is that some seniors living with diabetes and other chronic diseases and health conditions have difficulty accessing and preparing the foods they need to maintain a balanced diet.
This dilemma is discussed eloquently by one senior:
“… I am borderline diabetic, and I do have high blood pressure. And I don’t always get the kind of food to help me with my diet because of [not] being able to afford it, because the better foods are more quality. They cost a lot more. So sometimes you kinda settle for the cheaper value. And there are times that I wish I could get something different than what I do get.”
The chronic conditions that affect food insecure seniors are important considerations for both health and hunger-relief sector organizations serving senior populations.
The quotes highlighted here and other stories we heard from seniors exposed challenges they face in getting enough healthy food to maintain a stable diet. As a result, this study illuminates specific opportunities for us to re-design programs and advocate for policies that address senior food insecurity. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to serving any population, and programs serving seniors are no exception, but we are committed to finding solutions to problems faced by food-insecure populations so that we can make meaningful progress toward ending hunger. As a start, Feeding America is currently working in four U.S. communities to implement human-centered design strategies that result in locally based, senior led solutions.
We invite you to read more about our fight to end hunger, other areas of our research, and how to get involved, visit FeedingAmerica.org