A major challenge for public health in European countries is to maintain health and quality of life in the ageing population. Although older people are often viewed as a homogenous group, the majority of older people prove this view to be wrong, many living a very active and healthy life well into very old age. A healthy lifestyle, involvement in family and society and a supportive environment for older age all play an important role in the attempt to preserve wellbeing and maintain independence in old age.
However, as people age, they also enter a period in life when they are at higher risk for developing chronic disease, which in turn may result in disability. Further, differences in education level, income and social roles and expectations during all stages in life increase the variation in health and quality of life among older people. Throughout the word, the average education level of older people is below that of younger people. Such differences are important because higher levels of education are associated with better health, including food choice and dietary intakes.
Women and men age differently. While some of the differences between men and women are due to biological characteristics, others are due to socially determined roles and responsibilities, i.e. gender differences and gender roles. In our research it has been stated that that planning, preparing and cooking meals for the family, relatives and friends were essential parts of older women’s feeling of mental well-being. Men, however, when retired and living alone, showed a more rational attitude towards meals and eating. Because women live longer than men do, they are also more likely to become widowed, a life situation not seldom associated with poverty, loneliness and isolation. For men as well, the life situation often changes dramatically when the wife or spouse is no longer there to take care of household duties, including shopping, preparing and cooking daily food. Among older women, loss of a spouse and children moving away were shown to change both the content and regularity of meals in a negative way .
A large number of studies reporting food and nutrient intake in older people have been performed in residential settings, i.e., hospitals or nursing homes. These results have shown insufficient energy and nutrient figures, and malnutrition is common. Studies looking at older people who are still living at home have not been published as frequently. However, several of these surveys have also reported insufficient energy and nutrient intakes.
In the EU-funded project Senior Food Quality; "Food in later life" (2003-2005), Swedish findings showed that both men and women expressed worries, but also concern how to handle their food situation. The old men expressed no or limited experience of food procurement and cooking, while the women expressed their concerns about how to eat well even in later life, when they may have very limited strength to cook using raw ingredients. However, the participants also showed negative attitudes and lack of knowledge regarding new food products on the market. Given this background, we concluded that it is important to find strategies to prevent malnutrition, and increase life quality among old people.
Based on the results from “Food in later life” an education programme "Food Classes for Old People" was initiated in 2006 and the programme has been implemented in a number of Swedish communities. The education programme is in Swedish but will in early 2009 be translated into English.
The main objectives of the suggested food classes is to enable older people to acquire knowledge about cooking and eating, i.e. what to choose and why with focus on maintaining good health. A further objective is to inspire old persons to meet in a meal situation and to create network for future contacts. Thus, the main aim with the food classes is to enable people to maintain independence in old age in relation to food.
In the community of Uppsala several food classes during 2007-2008 have been performed. More than 100 participants (>65 yrs) have participated. The strategies behind this work as well as how the food classes are performed will be presented during my talk.
Congress of the Association of Clinical and Public Health Nutritionists. Helsingfors, Finland, 2008-10-06