Home delivered meal services could be expanded to potentially play a role in screening older people in the community for malnutrition as well as offering basic grocery delivery services, a researcher says.

Karen Walton

It comes as the government considers ways of supporting people to age in their own homes in the wake of the aged care royal commission.

Associate Professor Karen Walton from the University of Wollongong conducted a survey in 2016 on the experiences of Australian Meals on Wheels customers, which was used to develop the current national guidelines for home delivered meals.

The research, published in the Australasian Journal on Ageing this month, found Meals On Wheels customers were very satisfied with the meals they were getting as well as the social contact the service offered.

It identified pantry items as the most popular additional service that could be provided, along with nourishing snacks and nutritional screening.

“One thing that people they would like to have, it was available, was around extra shopping services, and access to pantry items that customers might run out of, like bread and milk or cheese,” Professor Walton told Community Care Review.

She said the survey also highlight how – subject to resourcing – home meal services offered an opportunity for monitoring the wellbeing of recipients.

“I’d be looking at more screening of older adults, finding out who’s malnourished, who’s at risk,” she said.

“Then you can put in place the early intervention and support they might need to maintain their health for as long as possible in their own home.”

Social contact

The research involved 337 surveys of people aged age 85 and over who had been getting Meals on Wheels for an average of three years. It found most MOW customers are female, aged 65 or older, lived alone and had difficulty preparing meals.

It’s not just about the meal, it’s about the social contact, it’s about the caring and monitoring that goes with that.

Associate Professor Karen Walton

More than 90 per cent said meals were the most valuable aspect of the service followed by social contact (57 per cent).  Ninety-five per cent were confident they were getting the right food for health and wellness.

Almost 80 per cent said nutritional value and taste was highly important. Easy to open packaging, cost, meal size and presentation was also considered important.

“Overall they very satisfied,” Professor Walton said.

“They really valued the meal itself, but also the social contact, particularly for people who didn’t live into major cities.

“It’s not just about the meal, it’s about the social contact, it’s about the caring and monitoring that goes with that.”

Favourite meals

Half of those surveyed recieved frozen meals, and popular dishes were baked dinners and chicken, with fruit salad, apple pie, and puddings popular for dessert. Egg and ham sandwiches and garden salads were also a hit.

Most reported meal sizes to be just right, though more than half split a three-course meal through the day, which the researchers said could have “concerning” implications for their nutrition.

A small number of complaints included lack of variety, overcooked veggies, tough meat and bad-tasting fish. Two thirds liked to eat snacks between meals including sweet biscuits, fruit and cake.

Meals on wheels deliver 10 million meals annually to more the 50,000 customers, but the researchers say the service is experiencing funding constraints and increased competition as well as increased customer expectations.

 The survey hoped to better understand customer views towards MOW to meet these challenges, they said.

It’s estimated that up to eight per cent of community-living older Australians are malnourished and up to 39 per cent are at risk.

Read more: Mandatory guidelines for home delivered meals

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