Above: Spokesperson for and former president of Meals on Wheels, Leon Holmes.
By Yasmin Noone
The federal government has declined to fund a national study which could offer a ‘silver bullet’ solution to the malnutrition issues currently facing Australia’s older population, a Meals on Wheels (MoW) advocate said.
Former national president and now spokesperson for MoW, Leon Holmes, has since called upon the government to reconsider investing in the health of its ageing population by providing the organisation with $470 000 worth of research funding over three years, so it can then investigate the potential benefits a prospective nutritional intervention.
MoW’s proposed three-year study will aim to determine whether a nutritional supplement, added to a high protein meal, wards of malnutrition and indirectly improves the health of individuals aged over 70 living on their own in the community.
“We are looking for $470 000 worth of funding over three years,” Mr Holmes stated.
“Now that’s just a flea bite compared to what they waste in Canberra. That annoys me intensely.
“…I actually think this study [could offer] a ‘silver bullet’ solution. Around 30 per cent of the [older] population is malnourished. That’s a dreadful indictment on Australia.
“In this country, food is readily available so you have to ask why people are not well nourished.”
The dollar figure requested, Mr Holmes said, forms only part of the $700 000 needed to conduct the study featuring around 400 participants because a private foundation has promised to chip in the rest. However, he explains, the donation is conditional. The money will only be contributed if the government provides the remaining two thirds of funding required ($470 000) so regardless of the donor’s good will, the future of the study still remains in doubt.
“We are extremely disappointed and upset that we haven’t received government funding for this [study] as we really believe in the benefits and we are ready to start now.
“The costs are absolutely minimal compared to any health budget [requirement]. The potential cost benefit of improving the nutrition of older Australians is huge. It doesn’t make any sense to us to not be funded by government.”
Adding further force to the organisation’s quest for funding, a recently commissioned Access Economics report into the cost benefits of nutritional interventions for older people has shown that malnutrition costs the federal government over a billion dollars a year.
“In 2010, the potential financial cost to the health and aged care systems of under-nutrition in this population was approximately $1.7 billion,” the report stated.
“Of this, costs associated with hospitalisation due to malnourishment are around $12.4 million. Longer hospital stays (of more than 14 days) accounted for around $25.8 million (representing the cost of the part of a 14 day stay which is greater than the average length of stay).”
Mr Holmes said the report therefore supports MoW’s claim that action is desperately required, while the proposed study could provide government with details on the type of action it should take.
“The study would say ‘If you add this sustogen to the meals of all aged people their nutrition levels will improve immensely’,” he said.
“Therefore by having good nutrition they wouldn’t fall over as much, they’d heal quicker and experience lots more benefits into relation to better nutrition and health. The potential saving to the population is huge.”
“…The government [should] look at that and say, ‘That’s unbelievable. We have to do something about it’.
“But we are the only ones that are saying that and we can’t get funding for [a study to look into the issue].”
“…It’s an appalling lack of foresight on behalf of the government to say no. It just doesn’t make sense to me when the cost benefit analysis is so huge.”
Mr Holmes said that he received a letter from the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, which recommended MoW apply for funding through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
“That’s pretty crazy as you are talking about food and nutrition, not a cure for cancer. This is basic stuff. Surely [we] could do it through Home and Community Care [HACC]…It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to go through the NHMRC.”