I often talk about the many reasons why we lose our appetite as we age (loneliness, medication, taste and mouth issues etc) but there is something even more basic than these reasons for not eating well later in life.
This is the physical side of opening the foodstuff and carrying it around!
I have looked after many older people trying to live independently at home and it can be a real struggle over what we might consider the simplest of things.
A friend of mine wanted some advice about his mother recently. He was really upset because he felt he had to put her in a care home but really didn’t want to. He came to me and said, “I can’t believe I might have to put Mum in a home because she can’t open a bottle of milk.”
So, let’s just look at a few things:
Those milk bottles. The plastic lids on milk bottles are hard enough, but then there is the metallic seal with a tab so small it’s hard to see with good eyesight. And how many times does the little tag get stuck to the inside of the lid you’ve just taken off? So, what do we do? Pick up a sharp knife and stab at it until the milk spurts out.
Plastic ham/cheese wrappers. You are supposed to be able to work out which corner is the one that opens, which isn’t easy in the first place. Then somehow grip the tiny piece of thin film and pull it away in one go. Even I can only manage this maybe 50% of the time.
With a ring pull. This often takes the force of 10n to start pulling and 80n to ping the lid away from the last bit of edge (after which you are wearing a sizeable amount of bean or tuna juice). This also assumes you have a finger that can fit in the ring (unlike many arthritic/rheumatic fingers), that can bend and grip to the required strength and a wrist that can work the muscles to deliver the full force of the pull.
Without a ring pull. Unless you have a wall-mounted electric tin opener (did they disappear after the 70’s?) using a tin opener can be almost impossible. Enough dexterity is needed to hold a tin with one hand (with a full working grip) and then place the opener in the right place on the lid and hold it down with the other hand using the strength of an ox for the entire circumference of the damn tin.
Plastic packets. Anything from biscuits to pasta to cereal. Using both opposable thumbs in a tight (!) grip on either side of the seam of the wrapping you are expected to pull at JUST THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF FORCE to rip open the packet without the entire contents flying across the front of your Zimmer Frame.
Jam/marmalade/pasta sauce….. jars. Again, 2 strong fully functioning hands are needed to hold, grip and twist until you are red in the face. Granted there are many suggestions on how to make this easier:
- A rubber band under the lip
- Hit the lid hard against a hard surface
- Use a tea towel
But, at the end of the day, it’s a right old faff!
Once we have gripped, ripped and twisted our way into our foodstuff our trials aren’t over there.
Saucepans, roasting trays and frying pans all take strength and confidence to carry with one or two hands. Using a colander or sieve requires dexterity, strength and a certain amount of alertness….more than once have I poured delicious gravy down the sink to be left with a sieve of unappetising lumpy bits!
Dials and switches…..be they on an oven, hob or microwave. Teeny tiny numbers and images that are all very similar but do different things. I mistook the defrost function on my new oven for the fan oven….. both have ‘fans’. I was more than somewhat disappointed with my roast dinner!
Kettles are incredibly heavy and pour out boiling hot water (funnily enough) but I always hold my breath when I watch an elderly client kindly make me a cup of tea. You see heavy thing-boiling water-shaky hand is a combination I find truly terrifying.
Gas hobs. Oh, my goodness! those little knobs are so easy to knock to ‘on’ if you are struggling around the kitchen. Of course, as we age our sense of smell becomes less acute.
So, if every single day you are struggling with bottles, jars, wrappers, packets, instructions, and heavy things…..it makes life difficult and miserable.
What are the solutions?
Well, there’s always a gadget for something: I have recently discovered the Granny Gets a Grip website which has a wide variety of aids for the kitchen https://grannygetsagrip.com/category/kitchen/
- There are easy-grip scissors for opening packets and wrappers
- There are easy-to-hold ring pull grabbers
- There are kettles you don’t have to lift when hot
But there aren’t gadgets for absolutely everything.
What to do if you are worried about someone
- Well, the only way to start is by doing a full audit.
- What does that person like to eat?
- What sort of packaging does it come in and how is it prepared?
- If it is tricky is there a simpler alternative? (a ready meal is better than no meal)
- What gadgets do they have and what might specifically help?
- Is there a neighbour/ carer/ relative who can be tasked with regularly opening the milk or the packets?
Independence at home is a very emotive subject. It’s not an easy conversation to have. Asking for help doesn’t come easily to the older generation. Although I don’t think anyone should have to leave their home over a bottle of milk, there are a lot of challenges to living independently at home and some may well be too big to manage.
What can the food industry do to help?
Well, if the packaging is stopping the elderly from accessing good nutrition at home, we need to confront the manufacturers. I was told once (I’m not sure if it’s true) that the packaging designers of a snack company had to try to open various wrappers with gloves on to mimic ‘being old’. If all firms had to prove that they were looking at ways to make things easier to see, read and open then that would be a good start.