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Saving money on aged care food a ‘false economy’

While keeping food spend low in aged care might seem like a cost-saving measure, it’s actually a false economy.

That’s one of the messages Dr Sandra Iuliano, who provided evidence at the aged care royal commission, sent to the sector via an article published in the University of Melbourne publication Pursuit.

Iuliano explained that malnutrition actually leads to higher costs as residents become frailer and more dependent.

"It leaves them at greater risk of suffering pressure sores or a fall, and reduces people’s immunity generally.

"Any hospital stay will be lengthened, which is why malnutrition is estimated to add nearly $A1800 to the cost of each hospital admission. That is over and above the cost of the treatment for the condition for which that person was originally admitted to hospital."

Research by Iuliano and her colleagues looked at 21 aged care facilities in Melbourne and found that 68 per cent of residents were malnourished or at risk of malnutrition.

“Typically, the facilities we researched worked to a four-week rotating menu, usually consisting of a continental-style breakfast; a midday meal of a hot dish and dessert; an evening meal of soup, a choice of a hot or cold dish, and a dessert; along with morning and afternoon tea and snacks,” she said, and added this was providing residents with a daily average equivalent to just one serving of a high-protein food, compared with the recommended two servings per day.

Iuliano said unless families are regularly bringing in food for their loved ones, residents have limited opportunity to access other foods.

And, as the daughter of a Wollongong aged care resident attested to at a recent royal commission hearing, even the food brought in by family members isn’t always meeting its aim.

Much of Iuliano’s research has assessed practical ways to improve nutritional care for residents by changing the food they’re offered, rather than relying on adding nutrient supplements.

“Based on research, we know that just using supplements to treat malnutrition is only effective in the short term, offering only limited benefits if they’re used for months on end.

“Also, once a pattern of malnutrition is established in an older person it can be challenging to correct, particularly given many older adults in residential aged care suffer from other ailments. As a result their appetites may be low, meaning just offering them more food won’t be enough to treat their malnutrition.”

Every mouthful of food in aged care shouldn’t just be tasty but have nutritional value and contribute to the ongoing health of the residents, Iuliano said.

“Once the outcomes of the royal commission are announced, which hopefully will acknowledge the importance of food and nutrition in the health of aged care residents, the goal should be to equip staff with the knowledge and know-how to improve nutritional intake of the older adults in their care.”

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