As part of the federal government’s budget commitment to improving food and nutrition in residential aged care, a new support unit will be established to offer providers advice.
In last Tuesday’s federal budget, it was announced the $36-billion aged care package would include almost $13 million to lift the quality and nutritiousness of food served in aged care facilities and to enhance the dining experience.
With that aim in mind, specialists will staff the Food, Nutrition and Dining Advisory Support Unit to link providers with support and education programs – including those run by accredited practicing dietitians.
“The $12.9 million investment will increase the capability and accountability of aged care providers to deliver good food and nutrition,” said Minister for Aged Care Anika Wells in a statement outlining the new initiative.
The unit – which will sit within the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission – will also operate a food hotline which, as well as offering advice, will also field complaints. “Older people have a right to enjoy quality food and will now have a simple way to report inadequate food,” said Ms Wells.
As well, the support unit will:
- coordinate up to 720 provider spot checks annually, with 10 per cent of spot checks of the highest risk services to have accompanying dietitians
- conduct up to 500 menu and mealtime assessments to increase providers’ knowledge to deliver nutritionally balanced menus
- engage Dementia Australia experts to promote nutrition and food enjoyment for people with dementia.
New dietary guidelines and resources will also be developed for older people. The guidelines will promote good nutritional intake and reduce malnutrition risk.
Speaking to Australian Ageing Agenda, Dr Cherie Hugo, an aged care dietitian and founder and co-director of the Lantern Project – a national industry collaboration working to improve dining in aged care – commended the government for highlighting the importance of good, nutritious food.
However, Dr Hugo said the initial details of the food unit raised some red flags. “These red flags come from a decade of concerted experience in this space … What is crystal clear is that industry, and their precious staff, need more guidance and support – pragmatic, multidisciplinary, evidence-based and hands-on support, and less punitive action.”
She added: “After all, a compliance approach not only increases cost, it doesn’t create the conditions we know and have demonstrated are needed to enable meaningful change.”
Dr Hugo told AAA the Lantern Project can share with government its “rich learnings” gleaned from working within the aged care sector over the past 10 years.
“Aged care food is a complex space – it requires tools that manage, measure and deliver in this space. Lantern already demonstrates positive solutions that go beyond compliance and translate to cost savings and improved quality of life for residents we all exist to serve,” she said.
“This government is listening to the experts in food and nutrition.”
The peak body for dietitians, however, welcomed the establishment of the food unit. Dietitians Australia president Tara Diversi said the initiative would be remembered as a significant social reform.
“It clearly demonstrates this government is listening to the experts in food and nutrition, accredited practicing dietitians, and is committed to taking the actions needed to advance the nutrition needs of Australians in residential care.”
To ensure that nutritional food is being served in aged care facilities, it is crucial the sector engages with experts, said Ms Diversi. The food unit “will enable more of us to reach and support nutrition management at the homes where it is needed the most.”
Ms Diversi also welcomed the development of new dietary guidelines for older Australians. “This is something that Dietitians Australia and our allies have long been pushing for,” she said. “Better nutrition in aged care is a health investment that ultimately reduces the risk of malnutrition, dehydration, falls, pressure injuries, wounds and hospitalisations for residents in care.”
In Cairns on Monday with Ms Wells to launch the food unit initiative, Ms Diversi said the peak was looking forward to working with the minister and the government “towards a future where Australians in residential aged care are nourished, served food appropriate to their food preferences, swallowing and dexterity needs and, ultimately, find joy at every mealtime.”