By Lance Robertson, ACL Administrator and Assistant Secretary for Aging
We all know that good nutrition is the foundation of good health. Healthy eating can help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight, prevent the onset of chronic diseases, reduce inflammation, and speed recovery from injuries. On the other hand, poor nutrition is connected to a variety of health problems.
Earlier this month, I had lunch with Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General. I shared some of the things ACL was working on during National Nutrition Month, and we talked about how important nutrition is for the people ACL serves.
VADM Adams gets it. “People who don’t have enough healthy food are more likely to be hospitalized, tend to experience longer hospital stays, and are more likely to be readmitted after discharge. Good nutrition is important to everyone, but it is even more critical for those at risk for being food insecure, such as older adults and people with disabilities, many of whom already are already at increased risk of hospitalization.”
Unfortunately, a variety of factors can make it harder for older adults and people with disabilities to get the nutrition they need.
As we age, our bodies generally become less able metabolize food, and many people with disabilities have unique nutrition needs. If people do not fully understand those needs, it can be very difficult to make informed choices that lead to better health. In addition, both older adults and people with disabilities can face barriers to eating well. For example, a lack of public transportation could limit access to fresh groceries, and some people need the support of a caregiver to prepare or eat meals.
ACL is working with the aging and disability networks to help address these issues.
The Older Americans Act (OAA), passed in 1965 and reauthorized in 2016, acknowledged the importance of good nutrition for older adults by creating two important meal programs.
The Congregate Meal Program brings people together for meals in group settings such as senior centers, while the Home-Delivered Meal Program provides meals for frail, homebound, or isolated individuals. Both programs serve people age 60 and over, and, in some cases, their caregivers, spouses, and people with disabilities.
Both programs offer nutrition-related services and other important benefits, in addition to the meal. Congregate meals provide companionship, access to other health activities, and wellness programs — nearly two-thirds of providers of congregate meals also offer health promotion programming. Home-delivered meals provide an opportunity for social interaction and informal safety checks. In fact, sometimes the person delivering the meal is the only person the older adult sees regularly; without the meal delivery, the older adult could be completely isolated.
The impact of these programs cannot be overstated. First, they play a key role in preventing senior hunger and food insecurity. They also help seniors remain independent. In a recent survey, 63 percent of congregate meal recipients and 93 percent of home-delivered meal recipients reported that the meals allowed them to continue living in their own homes.
Similarly, many of the ACL services and supports that help people with disabilities avoid isolation and remain active in their communities help increase access to nutrition. ACL also supports programs to help people with disabilities understand and manage their individual nutrition needs, while other ACL initiatives aim to increase the nutrition knowledge of the professionals who provide services and medical care for people with disabilities.
For example, ACL’s National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) has funded projects studying nutrition interventions for a variety of populations, including people with psychiatric disabilities and spinal cord injuries. In addition, many ACL-funded University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs) have professionals on staff with expertise in disability and nutrition.
UCEDDs in five states are partnering with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) and the Walmart Foundation on the “Nutrition is for Everyone” program. The program provides nutrition education, including direct training, for people with disability and community members. In my home state of Oklahoma, the program is supporting nutrition education training, in English and Spanish, for families with children with disabilities. The training is taught by two parents of children with disabilities. The program is also working with the Oklahoma Self-Advocacy Network to offer training to people with disabilities on fitness, healthy eating, and interacting with their health care team.
Many State Councils on Developmental Disabilities are also taking an active role in promoting nutrition. For example, South Carolina is funding a “Fit for Life” program that promotes health and wellness for young adults and adults with disabilities. They do this by pairing fitness classes with nutritional support and trips to the grocery store.
Food is an important part of everyone’s day. And for older adults and people with disabilities, it is vital to be well nourished — not just fed — to live the healthiest possible life. At ACL, we are committed to our continued work the aging and disability networks and other partners to support good nutrition as key part of helping people live independently. And while National Nutrition Month is coming to an end, we will keep spreading the word about eating well and living well – I hope you will join us!