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Hunger in elderly patients

Taking patient history for elderly patients can reveal actual hunger or risk factors for going hungry

One of my great life blessings is that I have never been truly hungry. Sure, I might complain of being “weak with hunger” or “so hungry I could eat my own leg,” but those were temporary complaints because I had a lunch bag, cooler, pantry or refrigerator waiting for me.

I was recently listening to an episode of the On Point radio program about hunger among the elderly. In the U.S., more than eight million seniors are going hungry.

With one in five seniors entering retirement with no savings, the problem of the elderly going hungry is likely to persist. How many weak and dizzy calls or falls might have inadequate caloric intake as a contributing or actual cause?

Taking patient history for an elderly patient can reveal actual hunger or risk factors for going hungry:

  1. Last meal: When and what was your patient’s last meal? Was the quantity and quality of food sufficient?
  2. Recent weight loss: We often ask heart failure patients about recent weight gain, but how often have you asked patients about recent weight loss? If they report weight loss, what is the reason?
  3. Check the kitchen: Is there food in the refrigerator or pantry? Also, check for dirty dishes in the sink and recently prepared food in the trash can.
  4. Meal assistance: Patient assessment is detective work. If you suspect the patient is unable to prepare his or her own food and has inadequate food intake, ask if he or she receives any meal assistance from Meals on Wheels, friends and family or a neighborhood senior center.
  5. Mobility: Is the patient able to get out of the house or apartment to shop? Many retirement facilities offer a regular bus trip to the grocery for generally healthy patients.
  6. Cooking ability: Is the patient able to prepare, eat and digest meals? Being able to stand for long periods, manipulate common kitchen tools like a can opener and open a jar require strength and dexterity that some patients may no longer have.

In our expanding role of practicing preventive medicine, do you think it is reasonable and prudent for EMS to identify risk factors for illness and injury and help patients find social service assistance from government agencies, religious institutions and community organizations?

What are the food and meal assistance programs for seniors in your city or region? How can you help match patients to those programs?

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.