File image: Elderly couple, Pexels

Malnutrition in the elderly is too often underestimated, under diagnosed and undertreated.

So says an expert from Stellenbosch University.

Old age is supposed to be a worry-free time when you can sit back and enjoy your twilight years. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many elderly South Africans above 60 who are more likely to suffer from, amongst others, disease, trauma, poverty and malnutrition.

“The World Health Organisation’s 2015 World Report on Ageing and Health points to evidence which suggests that globally a sizeable proportion of older people may be affected by malnutrition,” says Maritha Marais, a senior lecturer at the Division of Human Nutrition in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. Marais has a special interest in elderly nutrition.

She says malnutrition and associated micronutrient deficiencies contribute to impaired bodily function in older people which may be less obvious but have been associated with increased susceptibility to infections and disease.

According to Marais, one of the reasons why many older people living in South Africa’s urban and rural areas, suffer from malnutrition is because their old-age grants are often used to feed the rest of the household.

“Research shows that older persons often act as heads of households and their old-age grants commonly contribute to the general household income instead of taking care of their own needs.”

“It should therefore come as no surprise that they are the ones who suffer from malnutrition.”

Being among the poorest of the poor, older people rely on old-age social grants to survive, says Marais.

She adds, however, that social grants alone are not enough to improve the nutrition status of the elderly.

“Although single interventions such as cash transfers are commendable, on their own, they are not adequate to ameliorate malnutrition amongst older persons.”

Marais says since the right of older persons to enjoy optimal health and to live in a dignified manner is protected in national legislation, more must be done to meet their nutritional needs.

“The welfare of older persons should be a priority in social development, health and nutrition programmes to ensure quality care for the aging population.”

“It is crucial to limit the development of malnutrition in the increasing older population group, as caring for the frail persons increases the burden on community resources, hospital care costs and care facilities.”

Marais says duty bearers such as health professionals, caregivers, family and friends must be empowered to detect early signs of malnutrition and frailty.

“Older persons, family and caregivers need dietary advice about food choices, preparation of tasty meals according to the individual’s treatment plan and how to maximise the nutrient density of meals.”

Marais says dietary advice and frequent follow-up may be essential and the use of recipes, fact sheets, text messages, phone calls or home visits, as well as interactive demonstrations and food workshops could lead to improved compliance and a reduction of malnutrition in older people.

(Adapted from a Press Release)