By Laura Cairns

MALNUTRITION among older people is a problem far too often overlooked. Yet this is a serious issue, faced by unacceptable numbers of people in modern Scotland.

The time for changing that is now, starting with greater understanding and increased action within health and social care services in order to make the progress needed.

We cannot afford not to – and my hope is that 2021 is a year in which important improvements can be made.

It’s an eye-opener to many whenever I explain that our data suggests that 30 per cent of older people living in Scottish communities are at risk of malnutrition.

This figure is a stark reminder that, although the headlines regarding weight are often dominated by diet and obesity, malnutrition is a very real problem.

If we can improve the nutritional health of older people this will have an impact on their overall health and wellbeing and quality of life – hopefully reducing demand on health and social care services.

Through research carried out by Food Train’s Eat Well Age Well Project with the University of Glasgow, we know we can improve the experience of living into older age in the area of food security, health and nutrition.

Early identification of malnutrition is critical, with recommendations from our report including a requirement for all agencies working with older people to carry out community screening for early signs of malnutrition and to recognise that poor mental health also places the older adult at risk of malnutrition and food insecurity.

Greater screening will not only save lives but also rising NHS costs linked to the falls and fragility associated with those showing signs of malnutrition.

I’m pleased that those working with older people have been keen to collaborate with us to raise awareness of this hidden problem and take proactive prevention measures including Age Scotland offering free nutrition checks to older people through its helpline

We need more agencies and authorities, however, to act as they have.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how fragile food security can be for older people, with access to food, local shops, services and opportunities for social eating all exacerbated by the situation we have found ourselves in.

That was powerfully highlighted by the demand our colleagues in Food Train’s shopping service experienced at the peak of the pandemic, with customers numbers rising by 70%.

Indeed, volunteers with that service have just completed the busiest Christmas in the charity’s 25-year history, making about 5,300 home deliveries – up from 3,400 this time last year.

Notwithstanding Covid-19, our social care sector faces unprecedented pressures in terms of its sustainability to respond to an ageing population.

Tackling malnutrition among older people has the power to help ease that strain, while ensuring greater numbers will feel better, can eat well and live well in their own homes for longer.

This should be the year in which awareness and action intensifies. We stand ready to play our part. No older person should need to worry about becoming malnourished.

Laura Cairns is Food Train’s Eat Well Age Well project manager