All too often, aged care residents have to conform to eating within narrow time frames, and little opportunity is given for residents to eat when they choose.

But some in the industry say residents should be able to eat whenever they’re hungry.

“You’ve got to maximise their opportunity to eat when their appetite is best,” said Cherie Hugo, nutritionist and founder of The Lantern Project.

Ms Hugo said The Mater hospital recently did a study which showed that eating on demand not only increased food and protein intake, it also reduced costs and created less wastage.

While the study took place in a hospital setting, there were lessons from it for aged care facilities too, she said.

One in two in aged care are malnourished

If people can eat when they’re feeling the most hungry, they have the maximum opportunity for nourishment, said Colin McDonnell, dementia excellence practice leader with Scalabrini.

Making sure that residents remain properly hydrated and nourished is crucial, he said. One in two people in aged care are malnourished, making them more likely to fall, suffer skin tears, act out feelings of frustration, have high blood pressure, or suffer other adverse consequences, said Mr McDonnell.

Residents should be allowed to either get themselves something to eat, or ask that something is brought to them, whenever they’re hungry, he said.

Ms Hugo said aged care facilities should have nourishing snacks on hand and accessible at all time, so if residents to feel hungry outside set meal times they can still obtain some nourishment with a snack.

Mr McDonnell also stressed the importance of aged care residents remaining hydrated throughout the day, particularly in summer. He said aged care residents should drink 1.5 litres of water a day.

New quality standards could create greater flexibility

With the new quality standards coming in next year, there will be greater emphasis on individual choice for residents, and rigid eating times could become a thing of the past.

“Flexible meal times will be looked upon favourably,” said Ms Hugo.

Flexibility is also required for those with dementia, and those with different backgrounds, Mr McDonnell said.

People with dementia like to eat at different times, so to maximise their food intake it’s important that they are allowed to, he said.

Involving residents with dementia in preparing and serving food can trigger eating memories, which helps their bodies prepare for eating, and helps them go through the steps involved with having a meal, including eating.

Residents’ cultural backgrounds and lifestyles should also be taken consideration of when determining when they should eat, Mr McDonnell said.

For example, European residents might light to eat later than others, while people who spent a large part of their lives as shift workers might like to have their main meal in the morning.

Is it safe for residents to serve themselves food?

Mr McDonnell said residents should be able to serve themselves at the table. If people can at home, they should be able to in an aged care facility too, he said.

“They [residents] are not contaminated,” said Mr McDonnell. People are able to serve themselves at buffets in clubs and restaurants, so why shouldn’t they be able to do the same in aged care facilities?

Quarantine procedures are well established in aged care facilities, minimising any risk of infection.

Should residents be able to cook their own food?

Residents who wish to, should be able to help cook food in aged care facilities it it’s safe to do so, said Ms Hugo.

Some homes have introduced programs where residents are able to grow food in gardens and then help cook it, if they wish, she said.

“Some homes are navigating it quite well,” she said.

It’s about striking a balance between those who are able to and who want to, and making sure they are safe, she said.

November 10-17 2018 is Australian Food Safety Week.

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