Transportation, Income Affects Senior Food Insecurity

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Good nutrition supports good health; however, for some older adults, obtaining sufficient healthful food is challenging.

According to USDA data gathered in 2018, more than 37 million Americans were food insecure. Of those, 5.3 million are seniors.

But resources are available to help them. Laurel

Sterling, registered dietitian, nutritionist and educator with Carlson Laboratories, recommends that older adults and their loved ones look into programs offered by their county’s office for the aging.

“They can assist with transportation and other needs,” Sterling said.

While in the past, many older adults relied on their adult children for assistance, “some do not have any family around to help,” Sterling said. “Some have certain health issues that keep them confined to their home, some are unable to stand and cook for themselves, and some can no longer drive.”

Seeking outside help may make a big difference because an older adult facing food insecurity may have several needs.     

“It has many different layers of complexity,” said geriatrician Sharon Brangman, chairwoman of the department of geriatrics and director of the Geriatric Medicine Fellowship Program, Upstate Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease and Nappi Longevity Institute. “We have to break it down to which area it is. Then we have to try to connect them to appropriate resources.”

Some older adults do not drive anymore or limit their vehicle use. Driving to a full-service grocery store may require driving on busier streets, which can challenge some older adults who try to drive only in local, less congested areas.

“They may live in a neighborhood that would require them to take two busses from the suburbs to get groceries,” Brangman said. “Rural elders and urban elders have a lack of ready access to a grocery store.”

Going to a convenience store for most of the groceries can mean subsisting on an unbalanced diet of mostly pre-packaged foods. That sort of diet only worsens existing health problems and can cause new ones.

For some older adults, navigating a large store is hard because of issues like balance, stamina, COPD, recent surgery or illness or arthritis.

While ordering delivered groceries online seems an easy solution, it is not as readily embraced by some older adults. The tiny icons on a smartphone may be difficult to see and use. Some may feel uncomfortable buying things online or lack the technology to do so; however, a family member could assist in these tasks.

Some websites accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits but charge a fee for delivery that SNAP does not cover.

Ordering shelf-stable food through Amazon Prime or Walmart.com, for example, may help people unable to lug around heavy groceries. Paring down the shopping list to just the few fresh foods they need may make their weekly grocery shopping easier. Prime offers free delivery for members ordering $35 or more. Delivery is free through Walmart.com for orders of $35 or more.

Not all food items in Wal-Mart are available through the site. Amazon allows customers to set up regular shipments (choose “subscribe”), so a customer can automatically receive orders of frequently used goods without having to go online to order them. Ordering shipments may require a higher number of items, such as four-pack of soup instead of a single can.

Some pharmacies that provide delivery do not mind adding to the order a few other items the store sells. That could help an older adult stay stocked up.

A growing number of grocery stores provide curbside pick-up for those who have transportation but struggle with store navigation. This service may incur a fee.

Centro (www.centro.org/fares-passes/reduced-fares) offers reduced rates for seniors aged 65-plus in Syracuse, Auburn, Oswego and Rome and 60-plus in Utica who show a valid reduced fare photo id or a medicare card and photo ID upon boarding. They may also purchase a permanent Centro reduced fare photo ID.

Some communities offer scheduled senior rides or routes to help older adults access places to shop or keep appointments, such as those listed at Onondaga Aging Services (www.lake.ongov.net/aging/documents/OnondagaCountyTransportationServices.pdf), 211 CNY (https://211cny.com/taxsearch.php?tax=BT-4500.6500-800) and through Oswego County Opportunities (www.oco.org/transportation).

Asking a younger friend or relative, a civic or religious organization or a neighbor for assistance can make a big difference in eating well and eating poorly. It could be as simple as, “Could you give me a ride to the store the next time you’re going?  I don’t drive into the city anymore.”

Or asking, “Since you said you were going to the store, would you mind picking up a few things?”

Perhaps offering to set up an Amazon subscription or a meal delivery plan would help an older adult.

For any senior struggling to afford nutritious food, resources are available to help.

“We have social workers in our office who might call the Office of Aging or, before COVID, connect them with a senior program, which has lunch programs,” Brangman said. “They can connect seniors with financial support and resources and programs to help with medical bills and utilities and other sources of financial stress.”

Programs such as SNAP can help make food more affordable.   

For people who do not cook, staying well fed is challenging.

“I’ve had husbands who don’t know how to cook trying to take care of a wife with dementia and they’re both losing weight,” Brangman said. “One of my nurses was helping a husband come up with a menu for the week. His wife did all the cooking prior. I can prescribe a healthy diet but it won’t do any good if they can’t do these things.”

Many restaurants deliver; however, until recent times, the selection was limited. Apps such as Grubhub and DoorDash deliver food from restaurants that normally do not deliver; however, the food is more expensive and less healthful than home-cooked food and the services charge a fee.

Home meal delivery, food pantries, mobile food pantries and senior lunch grab-and-go sites are sources of inexpensive or free food for older adults.

Some older adults living alone struggle to eat well for social and emotional reasons. Brangman said that can affect nutrition, as can cognitive issues.

“People with memory issues usually do what people around them are doing,” she said. “Weight is a sensitive indicator of wellbeing. If they’re starting to lose weight, we have concerns. If they gain or maintain, we know they’re doing okay.”

Home health assistance can also make mealtime easier for older adults who are no longer safe cooking at home or who experience depression.

For further resources, call SNAP, 1-800-692-7462 or NY Connects or 211.