Eating In: How to Give Seniors Independence and Keep Healthcare Costs Down

Meals on Wheels and similar services are the key to caring for a growing elderly population.

The cost for a year's worth of home-delivered meals only pays for one day in a nursing home. (Photo: Andrew Brett Wallis/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

When we talk about issues like food insecurity and hunger, we tend to focus on the needs of children, but there’s another important, at-risk population that’s frequently left out of the conversation: seniors.

By 2060, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts there will be an estimated 92 million Americans over the age of 65—double today’s figures of 43.1 million. It’s a daunting figure when you start factoring in the costs of nursing homes and hospital care. But a new study out of Brown University shows that a simple, existing solution may help nourish our nation’s seniors while keeping them in their own homes longer: home food delivery, as offered by services like Meals on Wheels.

Researchers found that the more states spent on home-delivered meals, the more likely they were to help seniors stay in their houses and out of expensive nursing facilities. In fact, according to the study, home-based meals were the only statically significant factor when researchers measured state-to-state differences.

“For every $25 more per person annually that states contribute to delivering meals to seniors, [the study] found, they can reduce the number of people in nursing homes who don’t require most of the homes’ services by one percent. So not only is it better for the community, it can be financially advantageous,” writes Lindsay Abrams for The Atlantic.

Unfortunately, funding for the Older American’s Act—which could impact services for home-delivered meals, is on the table during current fiscal cliff talks, worrying groups like the National Council on Aging and others, particularly since home meal delivery programs have measurable benefits.

“We estimate that the cost to feed a senior for one year is roughly the equivalent cost of one day in the hospital. Keeping older adults in their homes and out of hospitals and nursing facilities helps keep Medicare and Medicaid costs down,” Mary McNamara, spokesperson for the Meals on Wheels Association of America, tells TakePart.

McNamara says that Meals on Wheels serves approximately a million meals a day with the help of over two million volunteers. Another group, Feeding America, estimates they serve nearly three million seniors a year through various programs.

For the lead author of the Brown study, Kali Thomas, the research was personal.

“My 98-year-old granny was able to remain at home, independent in her house until she died, and we have always, even before I did this research, attributed that to Meals on Wheels,” Thomas said.

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