This blog post was written by Victor Absil, a second year law student at Boston University School of Law and an Equal Justice Works Elder Justice AmeriCorps law student who worked with the Elder Abuse Prevention Project of Greater Boston Legal Services this Summer
Malnutrition and food insecurity are widespread problems that can have far reaching effects on older adults. Over ten million elders faced the threat of hunger in 2014, an increase of 65% from 2007 and the problem continues to grow. Unfortunately, only 42% of eligible older adults are enrolled and receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Even for those that receive SNAP benefits, many must still find alternative sources for food such as food banks just to get through the month. For older adults, hunger is caused by a number of factors, including poverty, but also other issues such as lack of transportation, social isolation, limited mobility, and health problems. It can also be caused by elder abuse.
Different forms of elder abuse may lead to an older adult becoming food insecure or even malnourished. The reasons this happens can vary – it may be the result of “passive” caretaker neglect such as when an elderly spouse caregiver can no longer grocery shop or prepare meals or it may be the result of willful neglect when a caretaker withholds food from a vulnerable elder. It may also be a byproduct of financial exploitation whereby someone is taking an elder’s income or assets, and not leaving them enough money to buy food. It can also result from self neglect – when an elder with dementia or mental health issues is no longer able to properly shop for or prepare food. Different forms of elder abuse leading to food insecurity or malnutrition happens every day both in older adults’ homes as well as in institutional settings such as nursing homes where elders may be dependent on staff for access to proper amounts and types of food.
One very creative way to address the issue of food insecurity and malnutrition is by creating a community farm or garden in senior living environments including nursing homes. This would allow for access to good, healthy food and help combat social isolation, which is a risk factor for elder abuse, by creating more of a sense of community. It could also offer the opportunity for intergenerational projects with older adults and children gardening together. Some nursing homes have already begun to realize the benefits of community farms. For example, Arroyo Grande Care Center has a community farm where residents grow vegetables. Wheelchair accessible planters and modifications such as raised beds make it easier for elders who have trouble bending or performing other gardening tasks.
Malnutrition stemming from elder neglect is absolutely a growing problem, but it can be combated in part by community gardens, which can offer access to healthy, nutritious food, a sense of purpose, and help create a community of people working together.
 National Council on Aging, Senior Hunger Facts, 2014