The Tea and Toast Syndrome: Psychosocial Aspects of Congregate Dining

By Myer, Cara | Generations, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Tea and Toast Syndrome: Psychosocial Aspects of Congregate Dining


Myer, Cara, Generations


Imagine a large family sitting around the table eating a fulfilling meal. No matter what the cultural background is, people usually eat as a family because the members need to be fed. But families are not always available. For example, some 80 percent of the lower-income elders from diverse ethnic communities who take advantage of a dining service in a senior center in an urban community in Minnesota report that not only are nutritionally complete congregate meals helping them with their nutritional and health needs, but the psychosocial aspects of eating with others is a main factor in their choice to participate. After all, how good are tea and toast alone in front of a television?

"After my husband died, I couldn't go into the living room for four or five months because he wasn't there," one 75-year-old woman at the center said. "'But Lila,' my friend said, 'you've got to get out of the house.' She brought me here. I put my arm around the little old ladies that come here-and they're so happy to see me. We all need other people-we can't just be hermits and sit."

MORE THAN ONE CAUSE OF MALNUTRITION

Older adults can be at high nutritional risk as a result of health, socioeconomic, or psychosocial factors. Malnutrition in older adults may result from cither an insufficient or an excessive diet. Poverty, social isolation, psychological difficulties like depression, chronic illness, problems with the mouth or teeth, and physical limitations all increase the risk of malnutrition. These problems are compounded when older adults do not recognize the warning signs of malnutrition until their health has deteriorated, as often happens. Malnutrition is a crisis, but the signs can be subtle. And, the cumulative effects of malnutrition are often simply attributed to "old age."

When nutritional needs are not met, the person's physiological reserves slowly diminish. Added stress from, for example, illness, surgery, trauma, or a death in the family can lead to life-threatening physical problems.

LINK FROM SOCIAL SERVICES TO NUTRITION SERVICES

George is a 72-year-old man who suffers from the effects of traumatic brain injury. He lives with his wife, Greta. Greta noticed that George was often spending the entire day in bed, and he was slowly becoming isolated. Greta prepared home-cooked meals, but George was not interested in eating, and she could see he was losing weight. Concerned, she called Volunteers of America of Minnesota's Southwest Senior Center. They arranged for George to begin participating in activities at the center and eating meals at the congregate dining facility. After a short time, Greta reported that George was socializing with others and that his appetite had improved significantly. George continues to attend the center, and Greta says that he is happier and healthier.

At Senior Nutrition Services at Volunteers of America of Minnesota, we have found that seniors can benefit nutritionally from interventions by social services. One of our most successful congregate dining locations is our Southwest Senior Center in Minneapolis. Seniors at Southwest may participate in the congregate dining program and have access to a licensed social worker who is experienced in working with the older population. This social worker can refer participants to necessary services that support the participants' independence. Some of these services include individual nutrition counseling and economic nutritional supports like grocery delivery and food shelves, along with other senior services provided by Volunteers of America of Minnesota and community programs. Southwest Center participates in our Nutrition and Wellness project, funded by a grant that gives them access to nutrition education classes, individual nutrition counseling, exercise classes, and Store To Door, a grocery delivery program for older people. Participants report that the exercise classes improve their general well-being as well as increasing muscle flexibility, strength, and coordination. …

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