Finding ways to reduce health care costs can come from surprising places. One of the key ways to reduce the cost of providing health care to older Arkansans, as well as improve their health, is through food.
Because many older people (almost 40% in Arkansas) have food insecurity – meaning they don’t know where, or if, they’ll get their next meal – it sets them up for more health problems, longer or repeated hospital stays and more out-of-pocket health care costs. During the past 10 years, Arkansas has ranked in the top five states in the nation for seniors facing the threat of hunger every day.
If you think this doesn’t affect you or the older people in your family, you are wrong. You might be surprised if you knew the real-life situation many seniors hide from their family and friends. Embarrassment and pride stop many people from asking for help. We’re all affected because hunger increases the cost of health care. If you pay taxes, then you are helping to pay for a system of health care that must pay for avoidable illnesses, hospitalizations and complications caused by senior adults’ hunger.
Over the next seven years, the number of senior Americans with food insecurity is expected to increase by 50 percent. Older Americans are more likely to be hungry if they:
- Have a lower income, fixed income or are unemployed
- Have a disability or limited mobility that makes it hard to shop and cook
- Are a racial or ethnic minority
- Are age 60 to 69
- Have limited access to affordable, nutritious food
- Live in a Southern or Southwestern state
- Live in a rural area
- Live alone, or are widowed or divorced
- Rent, rather than own a home
- Provide care for grandchildren
- Did not graduate from high school
- Do not have regular access to transportation
Hunger puts older people at risk for chronic conditions such as depression or heart disease, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, muscle wasting and dementia. Seniors who are food insecure are 50 percent more likely to have diabetes, 60 percent more likely to have heart disease and 30 percent more likely to have at least one physical impairment. Food shopping and cooking is harder because almost a third of Arkansans over age 65 have difficulties moving around; another 20 percent use a wheelchair or walker.
A poor diet is especially dangerous and costly for people who have diabetes. Poor control over diabetes increases the risk of kidney failure, amputations, blindness, nerve problems, and heart disease and strokes. Stress is ever present because of uncertainty about having enough food. The quality of their life suffers, and hunger robs them of dignity.
Inexpensive, low-quality foods that lack nutrients are a contributing cause of malnutrition. In turn, malnutrition limits the immune system’s ability to fight illness, and causes longer and more frequent hospital stays. Malnutrition is directly related to slower recovery from illness or surgery, more admissions to long-term care facilities and admission at a younger age, lower activity levels and a higher risk of heart disease.
A 2014-2016 study conducted at four Chicago hospitals revealed that a third of patients entering the hospital were malnourished or at risk of malnutrition. When the malnutrition was treated early in the patient’s hospital stay, it saved up to $3,800 per patient. The average daily cost of a hospital stay is about $2,000. The savings were due to faster recovery times, fewer complications (pressure ulcers, infections and falls), shorter hospital stays and fewer hospital readmissions. Readmissions within 30 days of being discharged from the hospital were reduced by 27 percent.
Higher health costs
Food insecure seniors have higher health costs because of more frequent doctor, emergency room and hospital visits, according to a 2014 report “Senior Hunger in Arkansas” from the Division of Aging and Adult Services, Arkansas Department of Human Services. These costs mean higher Medicare and Medicaid costs for both federal and state government. Meals on Wheels America estimates that malnutrition can increase health care costs by 300 percent.
People who must decide between medicine and food often cannot afford to fill their prescriptions or they reduce the dose to save money. Hungry people often eat foods that are filling but, have low levels of nutrients needed to maintain good health.
Other costs increasing
Hunger and malnutrition drive up the costs of our social safety net. Arkansas’ network of about 180 senior adult centers have reported significant increases in requests for food help during the past five years. Noon meals are provided at these community centers, including a limited number of home-delivered meals for home-bound seniors. As the number of older Americans increases, these community “first-responders” struggle to meet the demand for services. Federal funding, which has been stagnant for many years, is now dropping for older Americans’ meal programs. In the past 10 years, senior centers’ meal funding has decreased by more than 11 percent, compounded by an average increase in food costs of 2-3 percent a year.
Additionally, federal funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly called the Food Stamp Program) has been reduced, significantly affecting seniors’ ability to get food.
YOU can help
Pay attention to the older people in your family, and among your friends and neighbors. If you see any of the conditions listed above, they may already be living with malnutrition. Seniors who are in poor health, socially isolated, frequently hospitalized, have chronic diseases, mental health problems, depression or dementia are also more likely to have food insecurity.
If you can, check their refrigerator and food pantry for an adequate amount and variety of high quality, nutritious food. If the cupboard is bare, ask if they are signed up for SNAP and if their SNAP-purchased food lasts a full month. (Visit this website to get details about SNAP)
The local senior activity center might be an option for a well-balanced, noon meal with other seniors. Many offer transportation to and from the center. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging for details and locations.
Hunger is a serious threat to our nation’s public health and specifically the well-being of our older family members and neighbors. The true cost of hunger is measured by the suffering and embarrassment of our neighbors, by avoidable illnesses and by an unnecessary increase in health care costs for everyone.
Free food resources
Click on the resources below to get help with food. If you can, consider volunteering your time or donating to these organizations.
- Food banks and food pantries in Arkansas; includes location and map
- Why Hunger Hotline
- Ample Harvest–Emergency Food Assistance
- Food pantries in Arkansas
- Homeless shelterdirectory, by Arkansas county
Volunteer to help
Join your neighbors working with food charities, religious groups, food banks, soup kitchens, gleaning networks and other efforts, both great and small, that help get food to hungry people. Your donations of time and resources will be a welcome gift.
If you are interested in helping, visit these websites for more information:
- Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance supports a coordinated food distribution system via regional food banks
- Arkansas Foodbank Network supports food banks statewide
- End Hunger in America provides tools to help your community address its hunger problem efficiently
- Feeding America is a nationwide network of food banks
- Ample Harvest works to eliminate food waste by using a network to donate excess food or garden produce to hungry people
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