Caring about nutrition

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This week Carers UK published its report on Malnutrition and Caring. When malnutrition is discussed it usually in terms of the individual, health and social care resources and the preventable and unnecessary burden it presents to all. The vital role of carers is often overlooked and those caring for a relative or friend are often responsible for the majority of aspects of that person’s life, including their diet and nutrition, adding an additional aspect of responsibility to their role.

Carers UK surveyed 2,000 carers on their experiences of managing someone’s diet and nutritional requirements. Three out of four carers surveyed prepare meals for the person they look after and 60% reported worrying about the nutrition of the person they care for. In addition, 16% were caring for someone underweight and with a small appetite (indicators of malnutrition risk) and were worried, but receiving no support regarding nutrition.

One of the biggest issues is that despite great efforts to highlight and address malnutrition in hospitals and care homes, malnutrition remains largely a hidden issue in the community. Support and information is lacking for those who desperately need it and funding to provide resources for those living in their own homes and their carers is hard to come by. Families are under stress and struggling to care without the right advice and support. Carers are worrying about the nutrition of the person they care for without the opportunity to better understand the signs of malnutrition as well as the small changes that can improve diet and ultimately quality of life.

Of equal importance however, is that the nutritional needs of the carers themselves are often overlooked. These too must be recognised and supported. Many carers are themselves older people and it is often the case for both younger and older carers that their own health and nutrition is set aside as a result of focusing on those they care for.

The report concludes that earlier intervention will help to improve the quality of life for individuals and provide substantial savings to the health and social care sector. Research by the European Nutrition for Health Alliance (quoted in the Carers UK report) has found a significant preventable cost associated with the lack of awareness and treatment of malnutrition in the community.

Carers UK want to see action in 3 areas:
1. Supporting families to care by providing training and information on the signs of malnutrition and consultation on the options available for treatment.
2. Shifting priorities through the recognition of the vital role nutrition plays and its position as a basic human right.
3. A joint national strategy for malnutrition spanning health and social care which includes quality standards for nutrition and malnutrition as a priority which will deliver against the Outcomes Frameworks targets .

These actions would embed the kind of changes needed to ensure malnutrition is effectively prioritised, recognised and treated. To effectively tackle malnutrition we need routine screening, clear and accessible nutrition support through the community, health professionals and government as well as a government commitment that the importance of good nutrition will be reflected in quality standards, outcomes frameworks and public health targets.

Lisa Wilson

Carers UK report: Malnutrition and Caring: The Hidden Cost for Families:

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