Seniors suffer the most after natural disasters

Seniors suffer the most after natural disasters
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In times of disaster, there are consequences that are obvious, such as loss of property and dramatic loss of life. However, there are also unseen consequences that, if left untreated, can prove just as fatal. Unfortunately, the recent horrific Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have recently disrupted the lives of millions of people and our thoughts are with them as they cope with these devastating events.

It’s essential that we work to understand what people of all ages face following disaster, as well as the unique needs of more vulnerable populations.

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, the Senate Special Committee on Aging will conduct a hearing focusing on the impact of these disasters on older adults. One such impact is that older adults become more prone to clinical malnutrition and health complications when access to food, particularly special diets, is interrupted through evacuations — and these vulnerable seniors are supposed to bring weeks’ worth of food with them when they leave.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “Because Florida is so prone to hurricanes, its Department of Health recommends that older adults living in the state pack a 30-day supply of medication and a two-week supply of special diet foods or supplements when a hurricane is expected.”

This important Senate hearing will be held during Malnutrition Awareness Week, sponsored by the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN). The simple fact is, malnutrition among older adults is a growing threat to their quality and quantity of life, whether they are in a crisis or not. It is a problem that impacts both community-dwelling and hospitalized older adults.

It is estimated that up to one out of two older adults are at risk of malnutrition — and it’s estimated that disease-associated malnutrition in older adults costs $51 billion annually. Although strides have been made, critical gaps remain in diagnosing and treating the condition. ASPEN estimates that “10 hospitalized patients with malnutrition continue to go undiagnosed every 60 seconds.” We also know that malnutrition increases the length of hospital stays and increases the risk of falls, contributing to readmission.

The Defeat Malnutrition Today coalition and Avalere Health earlier this year released the National Blueprint: Achieving Quality Malnutrition Care for Older Adults. It was referenced at another hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging focused on nutrition and older adults. It identifies the four steps which, if adopted, can help improve older adult malnutrition care:

  • Screen all patients
  • Assess nutritional status
  • Diagnose malnutrition if present
  • Intervene with appropriate nutrition care

One must take seriously the emerging threats to the well-being of older adults: hunger and food insecurity, chronic disease and disability, and social and mental health challenges, and that the results of these conditions can be malnutrition. There are solutions, both regulatory and legislative, which are being developed.

Through regulations, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should add malnutrition electronic clinical quality measures to the current quality measure set. These measures have been proposed and CMS has already acknowledged the need for these measures.

Through legislation, in addition to providing full funding for all federal programs providing food and nutrition education to older adults, we need to work to ensure the nutrient quality of food provided with federal funds and that national health surveys include malnutrition measures.

We can act in this session of Congress. The Farm Bill is up for reauthorization next year, and the Older Americans Act reauthorization from 2016 is still being implemented. These pieces of legislation contain almost all the nutrition programs that serve older adults. We should make sure they’re fully funded and helping older adults maintain the nutrients they need as well as identifying older adults at risk for malnutrition.

By observing and acting during Malnutrition Awareness Week, we help to reinforce the obvious point that good nutrition is essential to better health. Whether dealing with a natural disaster or not, maintaining older adults’ nutritional status should always be a top priority.

Bob Blancato is the national coordinator of Defeat Malnutrition Today and the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP).