March is National Nutrition Month, a perfect time for seniors and their loved ones to learn more about healthy foods, improve their diets and, if necessary, reach out for help.
Fortunately, making healthy food choices just got a little easier. The Food and Drug Administration has updated the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods for the first time in 20 years. This is good news for Americans 68 and older who rely on the labels more than any other age group, with approximately 57 percent reading nutrition labels all or most of the time when shopping.
For seniors, good nutrition is important for maintaining a healthy immune system and avoiding chronic health problems, such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and bone loss.
Unfortunately, some seniors lose interest in eating because their senses of taste or smell have changed, they have difficulty chewing or digesting, or they are taking medications that inhibit their appetites. Others might eschew nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables in favor of processed or pre-packaged convenience foods -- or skip meals all together -- because they live alone and don't see the point in cooking for one or find it difficult to prepare a home-cooked meal.
According to the U.S. Administration on Aging, nearly 30 percent of non-institutionalized seniors live alone, and almost half of women older than 75 live alone.
In addition, seniors might lack the mobility, transportation or financial resources to shop for healthy foods. In fact, nearly one in eight Kansas adults 60 and older lack consistent access to adequate food, according to United Health Foundation's 2013 America's Health Rankings Senior Report.
Thankfully, help is available. Seniors with low or fixed incomes might qualify for federal programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program or the Emergency Food Assistance Program, that provide financial assistance for food. Some state and local agencies might provide meal delivery services or transportation to people who have difficulty getting to the grocery store.
For more information about nutrition assistance programs in your community, contact the Eldercare Locator, a service of the Administration on Aging, at (800) 677-1116.
Remember, although it's not always easy, getting proper nutrition is important to staying physically and mentally healthy as we get older. Take some time to consider how you or an older loved one might be able to get better nutrition and stay healthy and active at any age.
Lisa Gravelle is director of Long Term Care for UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Kansas.