A substantial portion of our population is reaching their “silver years” at a rate that is outpacing the opposite extreme. This is referred to as the Silver Tsunami. In 2019, nearly 10,000 Baby Boomers reach the age of 65 each day. Seniors’ need for food security and nutrition assistance is likely to rise as the population of seniors increases. In 2016, nearly 8%, or 4.9 million, of all seniors were food-insecure, and an additional 3.7 million were marginally food secure.  Accessibility of foods related to the extent to which resources like grocery stores, farmers markets, or other places to purchase food were accessible for seniors.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

A program often used by seniors is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In the US, over 4.8 million seniors are enrolled in SNAP, and they receive an average of $124 per month (USDA, 2017). Nearly 6 million seniors are eligible for SNAP but are not enrolled. The application process, like many government programs, can be daunting. At the very least, it takes time to process, assuming you have all of the necessary documentation. Agencies that provide direct support and assistance in applying for benefits include AIM, DSS, Goodwill, SHARE, Salvation Army, South Main Chapel & Mercy Center, and the United Way. This is not the complete list, but definitely a good starting point. South Carolina overall has 805,012 persons in 378,328 households enrolled in SNAP.

Transportation

Here in Anderson, in just three of the census tracts shown in green, there are almost 11,000 people, of which 8,000 are low income – 934 are seniors with low access to food. We were surprised to discover some 1,125 of these households do not have access to a car and are largely homebound. Some may have reliable friends or family who could provide transportation regularly or as needed, although more likely they do not have consistent access to transportation through their social networks and obtaining rides is a persistent challenge.

Senior Food Programs

Seniors’ needs are largely based on types and degrees of ability, rather than age. Some may have mobility limitations or needs for particular types of foods. Personal mobility refers to the ability to lift or carry items (e.g., physical strength), ability to prepare food, ability to walk or stand (e.g., self-efficacy to leave the house, run errands), and health status. Specific food requirements include preferences, accessibility, affordability, and chronic disease and dietary needs. Senior food programs may have to include customized food mixes to sub-groups of seniors with medical needs, such as diabetes.

Diabetes Belt

Anderson County is within what is unfortunately known as the diabetes belt: In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeled a 644-county area of the United States as the “diabetes belt,” at that time, where approximately 140% more of the population was diagnosed with diabetes as compared with those residing outside the belt.  As a consequence of having diabetes, food preparation may be hard:

“I am able to cook, but I am not able to feel so I’ll burn my fingers or if I cut, I’ll cut myself. I don’t feel with my hands. It’s been diabetic neurotropy in my hands goes about to here and the same way with my feet, it goes like up to mid-calf. I drop a knife in the kitchen the one day and it hit my foot and I never even knew it. It’s something you learn to deal with, it’s a fence…”

Many diabetic seniors need to not consume juice, refined carbohydrates, and sodium. Their doctors advise them to lose weight to improve diabetes as well as other conditions. Hypertension is also relatively common in our area, which requires a low-sodium diet. Seniors may have sensitivities or intolerances to gluten, dairy, nuts, and seeds, acidic foods, or spices. Some seniors may not be able to have citrus due to their interaction with certain medications. Many seniors living with diabetes wanted to consume more produce and lean proteins in order to manage their health but were unable to afford these items.

Senior Advocacy

In our area, SC’s senior advocacy group is the Appalachian Council of Governments. The Council conducted a survey in 2018 that yielded 1,408 respondents. This was a survey asked seniors to select all the items they agreed with. Here’s a summary of concerns selected by more than 10% of the respondents.

1 41%  I cannot do my yard work due to physical or medical reasons.
2 27% I am concerned about falls or other accidents.
3 27% I have trouble keeping my home clean.
4 22% It is difficult for me to get to the grocery store, pharmacy and/or medical appointments.
5 21% I have trouble keeping up with paying my bills.
6 20% It is difficult for me to do my laundry due to lifting, folding and putting clothes away.
7 20% I need to exercise more but don’t know where to start.
8 19% Sometimes I feel lonely or sad, even isolated.
9 17% I can’t grocery shop or cook much so home-delivered meals would be helpful.
10 13% I don’t know where the closest senior center is located.
11 13% Sometimes I don’t have enough food to eat.
12 11% I need legal advice, but I cannot afford it

Limited Ability to Prepare Healthy Meals

Many seniors in the sample were limited in their ability to cook or unable to cook. Common causes of cooking limitations were: weakness and fatigue, vertigo or dizziness, chronic pain that made standing or sitting for periods of time difficult, arthritis or numbness in the hands that made tasks like lifting pots or pans or chopping difficult, inability to withstand exposure to heat for a length of time, and occasionally memory problems that made cooking dangerous. Although the majority of seniors expressed a preference for fresh produce, choosing foods that were easy to prepare (cereal, sandwiches, or canned soups) was the practical consequence of limitations on their cooking abilities. Some reported that they consumed leftovers for several days. Easy-to-prepare fresh foods, such as salads and fruit, however, were strongly preferred when available.

Final Thoughts

The post provides a very brief overview of some of the challenges facing an often overlooked, yet growing portion of our population. Ironically, this is the segment all of us hope to be a part of at some point — the silver years. Suffice it to say, we want to be productive in these years, part of our thriving community. The Appalachian Council of Governments survey results gives us 12 different ways to support our senior friends. Pick one or two and go make life a bit brighter for someone!