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Hunger takes a toll on older adults

DeWayne Wells

DeWayne Wells

By DeWayne Wells
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Among the 50 million Americans who rely on emergency food from food banks each year, only about 8 percent are adults age 65 or older. However, senior hunger is on the rise and is expected to increase over the next two decades. Demographic shifts and rising health care costs are two factors pushing this trend.

By 2030, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts there will be 72.1 million older adults, nearly double the number in 2008. At the same time, the rate of poverty among seniors has been increasing steadily since 2005, according to a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI). From 2005 to 2009, the poverty rate rose from 7.5 percent to 9.4 percent for people ages 65 to 74 and from 7.6 percent to 10.7 percent for people ages 75 to 84.

With increasing poverty comes a greater risk for hunger. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity, predicts the number of seniors facing hunger will double by 2025, when the youngest of the Baby Boomers turn 60.

Older adults struggling with hunger face a slippery slope. One recent study showed that seniors facing food insecurity were significantly more likely to have lower intakes of major vitamins, be in poor or fair health and have health-related conditions that limit activities associated with daily living.

However, 30 percent of food bank client households with seniors indicated that they have had to choose between food and medical care. When seniors skip meals to pay medical bills, they run the risk of poorer health and increased hospitalization.

Emergency food from food banks can help seniors meet their nutritional needs while not sacrificing their medical care.

In our recent Harvest magazine, Gleaners profiled several seniors whose lives reflect these trends. One elder we featured, Haloise, lives in an apartment complex with 200 other seniors and disabled adults. She helps oversee the monthly distribution of food from Gleaners to her fellow residents.

“It’s really hard to afford food,” she said. “When someone has to pay for medical care, food is the first thing off the table.”

Another senior, Barbara from southern Wayne County, worked for many years and took care of all her basic needs until she was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. Currently unable to work due to ongoing radiation treatments, she was struggling to get by on her monthly disability check. A year ago, she visited a food pantry for the first time. Though she found it difficult at first to overcome her pride, she knows how important good nutrition is to her recovery.

It is important to ensure our older citizens have the nutrition they need to maintain good health. Without it, those who are vulnerable to chronic and acute illness are at risk of becoming increasingly ill. As the senior population continues to grow, Gleaners is committed to finding ways to address the emergency food needs of these and other vulnerable residents.

DeWayne Wells is president of Gleaners Community Food Bank and a member of the Detroit Food Policy Council.

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