At a glance 3: Nutritional care and older people

Published: March 2009

Key messages

  • Food and mealtimes are a high priority for older people and affect their quality of life.
  • Malnutrition affects over 10 per cent of older people. (British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, 2006)
  • Malnutrition is estimated to cost the UK over £7.3 billion a year. (BBC, 2006)
  • It is estimated that up to 90,000 people who receive home care services could be at risk of malnutrition. (Grove. K. (2008), Sutton: UK Home Care Association)
  • When malnourished older people are admitted to hospital they stay in for much longer, are three times as likely to develop complications during surgery, and have a higher mortality rate. (Age Concern, 2006, BBC, 2006)
  • Routine screening for risk of malnutrition across health and social services is a key part of good nutritional care
  • Giving older people the time, help and encouragement they need to eat can help tackle malnutrition.
  • Older people’s preferences and their dietary and cultural requirements need to be taken into account when planning mealtimes.


This At a glance summary examines nutritional care in relation to older people. As part of its Nutrition Action Plan, the Department of Health has asked SCIE to provide guidance on nutrition for the social care sector. SCIE’s Dignity in Care guide has been expanded to cover this information in a section on Nutritional care. The main points of this section are included here.

Standards of nutritional care are, for many older people, the main defining factor of the overall quality of the social care service they receive.

Although there is no doubt that many care services are providing older people with well-balanced meals and the support they need to enjoy their food, it is also known that some older people in care and in the community are failing to thrive because of poor nutrition – and there are serious consequences.

For social care staff, only a basic knowledge of nutritional care is necessary in order to tackle malnutrition in older people. Most importantly, we need to ensure that older people are routinely screened and have access to a choice of food that:

We need to ensure that older people are given the time, help and encouragement that they need to eat the food provided.

Malnutrition can be caused or worsened by conditions relating to older age, so a diet rich in essential nutrients is vital. We need to ensure the right nutritional care is provided and to urgently improve standards of nutrition for those older people who are suffering from the effects of an inadequate diet.

Nutrition is a basic human need and food in the UK is plentiful, yet older people are suffering from malnutrition.

Why is there a problem?

Nutrition is a basic human need and food in the UK is plentiful, yet older people are suffering from malnutrition. Why is this? The research shows that there are a number of reasons, including:

Ageism, discrimination and abuse

These wider issues have been cited as underpinning the poor treatment of older people in health and social care services leading to this group being viewed and treated unequally.

Attitudes and awareness

Recent media campaigns have highlighted a number of worrying trends in terms of general ignorance about food and eating for good health. It is important that public bodies with food provision responsibilities, either directly or through commissioning services, take the lead in addressing the national deficit in awareness of the importance of food, mealtimes, nutrition and hydration.

Resources, quality and sustainability

There are a number of resource issues that may affect the nutritional care of older people. These include low food budgets, inadequate staffing levels (especially around mealtimes) and lack of training. It is important, therefore, that services ensure they are getting the best value by investing in staff and adopting best practice. Improved education and training for the workforce and the procurement of good quality food which is, where possible, local, seasonal and sustainable, will have an influence far wider than the improvement of nutrition in older people.

Good nutritional care is founded on:

Managing nutritional care and mealtimes

About this summary

This At a glance summary is based on the Nutritional care and mealtimes section of SCIE’s Dignity in care guide. This guide has been designed for people who want to make a difference and improve standards of dignity in care. It provides information for people using services on what they can expect from health and social care services, and a wealth of resources and practical guidance to help service providers and practitioners in developing their practice. The aim of ensuring that all people who receive health and social care services are treated with dignity and respect. The guide provides quick and easy access to:



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