By: Rt Hon Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, Feeding Britain Trustee, and chair of the APPG on Hunger

I co-founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger four and a half years ago.

Since then, the Group has received many hundreds of submissions around the extent and causes of hunger in this country. Almost all of them have centred upon the poverty which exposes a proportion of families and individuals below the state pension age to hunger. Barely a handful of submissions, though, have raised the vulnerability to hunger that exists among pensioners.

In a sense, we invited such a response having set ourselves up primarily to investigate the rising need for food banks in this country. The rapid increase in the numbers of people seeking help from food banks over the past decade – a most visible symptom of hunger in our country – has occurred almost exclusively amongst families and individuals below the state pension age. Less than one per cent of pensioners use food banks.

“It was Feeding Britain, the organisation set up by the Group to implement our package of recommendations, which first conveyed to us concerns from volunteers on the front line around a phenomenon that, in recent years, has largely remained under the radar: the exposure of pensioners to malnutrition or, as it was put to us in oral evidence, older people ‘starving in their homes’.

It was Feeding Britain, the organisation set up by the Group to implement our package of recommendations, which first conveyed to us concerns from volunteers on the front line around a phenomenon that, in recent years, has largely remained under the radar: the exposure of pensioners to malnutrition or, as it was put to us in oral evidence, older people ‘starving in their homes’. Hence our desire, in establishing a short inquiry, to gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon and what new approaches are required to counter it.

Now, at the conclusion of that inquiry, we cannot help but ask ourselves why this social evil has been allowed to remain under the radar for so long.

Hidden beneath the radar, there are malnourished older people in this country spending two or three months withering away in their own homes, with some entering hospital weighing five and a half stone with an infection, or following a fall, which keeps them there for several tortuous days, if not weeks.

Among our key findings published in Hidden hunger and malnutrition in the elderly were:

  • Despite a continued reduction in absolute poverty amongst pensioners, over a million older people are likely to be malnourished or at risk of malnutrition.
  • The main causes of this malnutrition are loneliness and isolation, often brought about by a string of setbacks such as bereavement, illness, shop closures and a loss of community transport or Meals on Wheels.
  • The estimated annual cost of this malnutrition to our country’s health and social care services is £11.9 billion. This sum will increase to £13 billion in 2020, and again to £15.7 billion by 2030. Malnourished older people are more vulnerable to accidents and ill health, for example, and are also more likely to take longer to recover or heal.
  • Targeted investment in services which protect older people from malnutrition would deliver significant annual savings to the NHS, not least by reducing the number of hospital admissions and limiting the number of days older people spend in hospital.
“The elimination of malnutrition amongst older people is urgently required for the sake of the NHS, and social care services, but above all for purposes of humaneness.

The elimination of malnutrition amongst older people is urgently required for the sake of the NHS, and social care services, but above all for purposes of humaneness. Hence our central recommendation in the report, for a series of innovative pilot schemes that feed and care for older people.

Among the key recommendations to the Government were:

  • Public Health should be tasked with publishing data on the extent of malnutrition in the elderly.
  • Screening tools should be used at all levels of care, to identify and subsequently treat in the community as many older people as possible who are either malnourished or at risk of being so.
  • A reallocation of existing expenditure on pensioners should be considered, in which Winter Fuel Payments are withdrawn from the richest pensioners and invested in innovative community projects which protect older people from malnutrition by ensuring that, for example, they eat at least one hot meal per day.

We also called on Britain’s biggest supermarkets to open up a new front in the battle against malnutrition amongst older people. Three reforms, in particular, would move us onto the front foot in this battle: 

  • The provision during set times of the week of assisted shopping, including ‘slow’ or ‘relaxed’ checkout lanes, so that older people can continue to shop independently for the food they wish to eat
  • Accompanying those shopping sessions with a lunch club in the in-store café area
  • Subsidising the community travel that older people will require to get to the supermarket, both to buy their shopping and to attend the lunch club

To read the full report published by the APPG on Hunger please click here.

To learn more about what Feeding Britain is doing to address hunger and malnutrition amongst older people please click here.