I’ve spoken before about how one of the greatest joys my blog brings me is being able to help spread awareness of important issues. So when I was invited to a special event in London, I jumped at the opportunity. This campaign is being run by Abbott and focuses on the role of nutrition in the elderly, and why it’s so critical to their health. Hint: it accelerates the loss of muscle associated with old age.
Several experts in the field would be present to give talks, as well as a (very cool, as it turns out) lady called Doreen Mills to describe her experience of malnourishment following a fall. Perhaps most fascinating of all, though, was that I’d have the opportunity to try out a Sarco suit which is designed to simulate muscle wastage.
When I agreed, I was thinking particularly about my Nan. She’s suffered a couple of quite nasty falls herself over the last few years, which naturally affected her confidence. She’s a fiercely independent woman: she lives alone (and has done for as long as I remember); she goes dancing every week; she still drives at 84 years of age! She’s also had two knee replacements, so, inevitably, her falls impeded her physical pursuits for a while.
But, make no mistake – she is in full possession of her faculties.
So when I confirmed my attendance, out of common courtesy I wanted to discuss with her the project I’d be undertaking. Essentially, I wanted to chat through the difficulties her falls have presented and how she feels about them.
But mostly I wanted to obtain her endorsement and blessing given that I’m writing about her.
And therein lies the heart of the issue: respect.
Because I‘ll be writing in depth about frailty and illness and malnourishment, and I’ll be following this post up with another about the different ways we can combat these problems should they befall our nearest and dearest.
But – of course – the elderly and infirm are not necessarily feeble of mind.
So while we can offer practical help, we cannot – and must not – patronise our loved ones. It’s a fine balancing act. It’s also critical that we take it on and nail it.
Basically, it turns out that nutrition is paramount to the wellbeing of the elderly. Obviously it is for all of us to a degree; but never so crucially as in old age (well, perhaps in babies too, I’m not a doctor). Suffice to say, poor nourishment leads to malnutrition, which exacerbates muscle wastage – and that in itself makes life more difficult and can lead to injury. Serious stuff indeed.
A Quick Lesson in Nutrition
Malnutrition is defined as a deficiency of protein, energy, or vitamins and minerals, and is both a cause and consequence of illness. It creates problems in three ways; it harms:
- Body composition (adversely affecting weight and muscle mass);
- Function (deterioration of strength and stamina);
- Clinical outcomes (negatively impacting recovery from illness).
We were talked through this (and far more) by Kelly Grainger, Head of Dietetics & Therapies at Leaders in Oncology Care (LOC). (In case you’re wondering, that’s a pretty badass job and Kelly will have trained for a minimum of four years to practice in this field. I don’t have her precise credentials, but you can safely presume the lady knows her stuff. She’s also very nice.)
Here are a few of the things we learned from her:
- More than 3 million adults in the UK are malnourished.
- 1 in 3 adults admitted to hospital are malnourished. I know – crazy, right?
- 1 in 3 adults believe frailty is an inevitable part of ageing. But guess what? Not true! Check this out for proof…
- Almost 94% of us expect to suffer personal injury as a result of ageing. That’s a pretty miserable statistic, no?
Kelly also explained why nutrition is so vital to the health and wellbeing of the elderly in particular:
- Though 90% of us (including me until recently!) are unaware of it, muscle loss actually begins at 40;
- The good news is it’s more than possible to resist this, if not completely stop it in its tracks. And it all comes down to diet;
- Alas… There’s more bad news too I’m afraid: an easy fix it ain’t… And here’s why:
While we were being fed this mass of information which I was absorbing like a sponge (and admittedly struggling to note down fast enough!), I found myself likening the issue to a similar one I face with my toddler and her diet on occasion: We’re talking about people.
People with thoughts and feelings and minds of their own.
(Mrs Mills for example, a brave and shining example of somebody who’d come out of hospital malnourished, and gone on to beat the problem.)
With toddlers we know what’s best for them because we’re the parent and they’re still developing their understanding and knowledge of the world, ie. they don’t yet appreciate that biscuits for breakfast lunch and tea are not an adequate source of, well, anything really.
- The Magic New Year Diet That Actually Works Long Term
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- Are Pescatarians and Flexitarians Just Cheating Vegetarians?
With the elderly, we may in some circumstances know what’s best for them – if say, we’ve consulted with a dietitian who knows their stuff (Kelly). However, just as toddlers are stubborn little creatures, so are our grandparents. And just as biscuits are easy for toddlers to eat because they taste nice and disintegrate in the mouth (perfect for when you have no teeth)… Well, quite.
The complication comes with that issue I mentioned earlier: respect. With our toddlers, we demand that they give it to us by default. We may have to deal with their anger in the form of a tantrum, and ultimately they may refuse to eat the food we put in front of them. Until they get really hungry…
With our elders, we want to help them without causing them upset or distress, and sometimes it’s an almost impossible task. We can encourage a particular food but that’s really all we can do. If they refuse it, then they’re perfectly able (hopefully) to raid their cookie jar the moment our back is turned – and they’re entitled to.
However, the following information demonstrates why it’s so crucial that we try to find a way to help ensure they’re meeting their nutritional requirements:
- As we age, we need fewer calories;
- As we age, we need more protein and more nutrients to maintain muscle health;
- Ergo, as we age, we need more nutrient-dense food.
Ultimately, what this means is if we’re going to sustain a healthy body composition of lean muscle mass, we have less allocation for empty calories (read cake). But you try telling Doreen Mills that…
Doreen spoke at length of her partiality for cake, and as you’ll know if you read my blog, I too adore the good stuff. (Naturally, we bonded over our shared love of decadent icing-topped sponge and rich chocolate brownie. We didn’t really, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a kinship.)
The point is, we’ve always been told there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of what we fancy, yet as become older, this idiom becomes more and more difficult to live by… Not least because appetite diminishes; certain foods become more difficult to manage; shopping and cooking is often only for one, which can in itself reduce the pleasure – not to mention the physicality of those chores becoming more difficult.
Thankfully – for now – my Nan is now more or less back to her previously robust self. I’m thankful she’s been relocated to a flat with a wet room which makes washing herself that much safer, without robbing her of her independence. And I’m more aware than ever of how vital her diet is. I also find myself scrutinising my parents a little more closely…
I was fortunate enough to be given tons of advice to help me help them, and so I’ll be back soon with some brilliant tips to ensure your loved ones stay ship-shape for as long as possible, too. My next post will cover:
- Signs of malnourishment to watch out for in your loved ones;
- How nutrition affects the body;
- How the elderly are at increased risk of malnourishment;
- Tips to help your loved ones stay healthy.
In the meantime, I’m going to leave you with this little clip of me wearing the Sarco suit… Enjoy!
(So sorry about the footage being vertical, I won’t reveal the identity of the camerawoman! Talya, cough cough, Talya.)