Meals on Wheels has been delivering food to older people in Australia since the 1950s. Last year it served more than 50,000 people.
A study published in the Australasian Journal on Ageing analysed the nutrient composition of meals from a regional Meals on Wheels (MOW) service, as well as meal ordering patterns.
It found most consumers order only a main meal, which did not meet energy requirements for older adults, nor protein requirements for men. The three-course meal (a soup, main and dessert) did however meet MOW recommendations for women – but not for men, it found.
The researchers concluded that “innovative strategies are required to increase the nutrient content of meals, within the context of meal ordering preferences of consumers”.
Between meal snack-packs
Co-author Professor Karen Charlton of the University of Wollongong said their team has been working with MOW services to trial strategies, such as offering between-meal snack-packs to try to boost the energy and protein intake of recipients.
“Despite being an effective approach, many older clients who were malnourished did not perceive the snacks to be of benefit to them,” she said.
“Older adults tend to have small appetites so it is difficult to meet their nutrient requirements with small meals. One way to pack more nutrients into meals may be to fortify them by adding milk powder and margarine to sauces, gravies, mashed potato, and soups, for example.”
Older adult nutrition has become an area of growing concern in Australia, Prof Charlton said.
“It is well known that a good nutritional status is required for optimal physical and mental functioning, and to prevent loss of weight and muscle mass.
“Many factors affect an older person’s ability to obtain a balanced diet, not least loneliness, as well as an inability to shop and/or prepare meals.
“Meals on Wheels fills an important role in providing frail older people with home delivered meals, especially in the period after a hospital admission or an illness. The challenge is to make the main meals as nutritious as possible, given that many older adults are unable to manage three courses.”
The issue is only going to increase in importance as the ageing population continues to grow and live longer, Professor Charlton said.
Older Australians in the community at risk of malnutrition
In Australia, it’s estimated that close to five per cent of community-dwelling older people are malnourished. A further 38 per cent are ‘at risk of malnutrition’.
The study focused on a MOW service in Kiama, NSW, where the meals are purchased by the program from three external providers.
The majority of the consumers ordered main meals alone (53 per cent), followed by main and desert (21 per cent), while soup, main and dessert were ordered by only nine per cent.
The study also found there was a decline in client numbers – from 106 in 2008 to 90 in 2012.
“The low numbers may be related to low awareness about the service in older people, lack of referrals by health professionals or other negative perceptions around using the service,” the authors wrote in the paper titled: Meals on Wheels: Who’s referring and what’s on the menu?