TORONTO — Flo Elliott was never a big eater, but her appetite plummeted when her husband died.
Suddenly alone after 54 years of marriage, Elliott says she lost interest in food and would routinely skip meals.
It would take about seven years to recover that appetite, says the now 89-year-old.
“It’s really, really hard after living with someone for so long to be alone,” she says from her home in the eastern Ontario hamlet of Wilberforce.
“That was the worst of it. I think I couldn’t seem to enjoy food. I didn’t care, I guess.”
Loneliness is a big factor in getting good nutrition, say experts in the field of senior health.
Many, including nutrition professor Catherine Morley, are applauding a section of Canada’s new food guide that encourages people to eat with others when possible, to prepare more foods at home and to plan their meals.
Morley, who teaches at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., notes seniors often have lower appetites but “when they are with other people they do eat more.”
A good mood, attractive plating, and colourful, delicious-looking food all play a role in encouraging eaters to savour a meal, she notes.
But finding fellow diners can seem like an insurmountable challenge for those grappling with depression, mobility issues or poverty, Morley adds, arguing that this portion of the guide’s suggestion shouldn’t entirely rest on the individual.
“The evidence is absolutely there that cooking together as families and eating together as families builds stronger communities, that’s been documented for quite a long time,” says Morley.
“The responsibility that I’m feeling isn’t resting with the person who’s the old person, it’s resting with the community around them.”
She cites a 2015 study by the Canadian Malnutrition Task Force that found 45 per cent of older adults admitted to hospital for a non-nutrition diagnosis were malnourished.
Aside from financial hurdles, seniors may have mobility and health issues preventing them from grocery shopping, or visually determining whether a piece of fruit is fresh or rotten, experts say. Arthritis can make holding a knife well enough to chop vegetables difficult, while back trouble can limit ability to stand at the stove or sink.
“It takes a village in a situation like this,” says Carol Greenwood, an emeritus at the University of Toronto in nutritional sciences and a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.
“Families are not tight-knit the way they used to be four generations ago when people moved a block away from one another.”
Elliott credits her friends and various activities — a book club, historical society, and a community cooking group — with keeping her mindful of healthy eating.
She considers herself a “plain cook” but tries to eat well by limiting meat and favouring vegetables. She will buy frozen prepared meals, such as the meat pie she had recently with a baked potato and carrots. Back trouble makes it hard for her to stand for long periods in the kitchen.
“The last two or three years I’ve come to realize you have to take care of yourself because you’re not doing anybody any good being sick,” she says, noting that her adult son lives in Peterborough, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive away.
Elliott goes out to lunch regularly with two senior friends who are also living alone, and they call each other nearly every day.
“It’s almost like family,” she says of their relationship.
Of course, experts say the benefits of eating with others extend to all age groups. The food guide encourages people to foster connections between generations — especially children who learn from behaviour modelled by parents and caregivers.
U of T social and behavioural health sciences professor Kate Mulligan says social isolation is known to put health at risk.
“All kinds of things happen when we eat alone — we may be in a rush, we may not be focusing on the foods we’re eating, and we may eat standing up, eat at our desks,” says Mulligan, whose work includes drawing links between social well-being and nutrition with the Alliance for Healthier Communities.
“Being together allows us to slow down, to focus on the culture of eating and being around food to spend time together preparing food, learning about food, building food literacy.”
Morley encourages people to consider the hurdles facing older neighbours and family members who may not be as fortunate as Elliott.
“I’d like to see us as a whole culture do that better,” she says.
“Let’s think about the people who you’ve seen or live close by. Simple things like: ‘Do you need a lift to get to that church lunch?’ That would be all that’s needed.”