A shocking new study reveals aged care home spent an average of $6.08 per resident to provide residents with three meals a day. Michael Gannon, president of the Australian Medical Association, describes this as a “national disgrace”.

In aged care homes, meals are the highlight of a resident’s day. Some aged care homes provide delicious and nutritious meals. Others serve meals that are inedible.

When compared to international food budgets, Australian aged care homes spend 1.4 times less than Canada and 3.8 times less than Norway. When providers skimp on the cost of meals, they are putting residents at risk of malnutrition.

A recent study described at least half the residents in Australian aged care homes as suffering malnutrition.  Malnutrition increases risk of falls, pressure injuries and hospital admissions. This not only decreases residents’ quality of life but also increases health care costs.

The importance of older people having a nutritious, well balanced diet is widely acknowledged. Yet it is also important that older people have choice. Recently, a GP told a 94-year-old resident not to eat soft cheeses (her favourite) because it may raise her cholesterol. My mum also loved soft cheeses – and I encouraged her to eat as much as she wanted. Mum had reached an age when she could eat whatever she wanted, irrespective of her cholesterol levels. This included our regular trip to McDonalds for a cheeseburger and a chocolate shake.

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In some aged care homes, residents are not given a choice. They are often served meat pies, deep-fried patties and chicken nuggets. Sugary desserts are also common. Given the incidence of diabetes, heart disease and cancer in older people, the high level of sugar and salt in the meals served in some aged care homes is negligent.

Some residents might enjoy helping staff in the kitchen. However, residents are rarely allowed to participate in food preparation. Although older women spent most of their adult lives preparing food for their families, providers claim that food preparation puts residents at risk of injury. Even a simple activity like peeling potatoes is often not allowed because residents (many of whom have peeled potatoes all their adult lives) are at risk of cutting themselves.

Meal times can be chaotic and distressing for those residents who can’t feed themselves. Often their hot meals are served cold. When an aged care home is short staffed, residents may be fed their meals too quickly. This puts residents at risk of choking.

Many aged care homes use outside caterers that deliver meals wrapped in plastic. It is difficult for some older people (e.g. those with arthritis in their hands) to access their meals. Without assistance, these meals may be left untouched. Staff are so busy they may not notice the unwrapped food remains on the meal tray.

There is also concern that residents may not be drinking enough. Mum would be given a full cup of tea and then later a member of staff would take away a full cup of tea. Staff were simply too busy to notice that Mum had eaten the biscuit but not drunk any of the tea.

The Lantern Project fed everyday Australians a typical aged care meal. The food was described as “disgusting”. Some questioned whether it was in fact food. The poor quality of food served in some aged care homes inspired the Maggie Beer Foundation to develop ‘Creating An Appetite For Life’ Education Programs. These programs raise awareness, train staff, managers and chefs to buy and serve fresh produce and make food more palatable.

Residents’ wellbeing depends on aged care homes serving nutritious and delicious meals. Replacing processed food with fresh seasonal produce makes economic sense. Many aged care homes have productive vegetable gardens tended to by those residents with green fingers.

It is beholden on aged care providers to make meal times a happy experience for older Australians living in aged care homes. This will improve the health, happiness and quality of life of residents.

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