Café Connections: Research tailors programs to feed today’s seniors

Rawpixel.com / shutterstock.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the world to the challenges of social isolation and food insecurity — hurdles many American seniors faced even before the declaration of a global pandemic last March. 

Congregate meal initiatives (food-centric programs intended to prevent institutionalization, hunger, malnutrition, and feelings of isolation for seniors) at both the state and national levels were established to help combat senior citizens’ battle with social isolation and food insecurity. Even though the senior population has been on the rise since 2005, congregate meal program participation is in steady decline across the nation.

Nandita Chaudhuri, a research scientist in the college’s Public Policy Research Institute (PPRI), and her research team are leading a $1 million research project aimed at rethinking and modernizing the congregate meal programs across Texas. This research, funded by the Administration for Community Living’s Innovations in Nutrition Program and Services (INNU) grants, is empowering local Texas nutrition providers to plan and test innovative meal programs in both urban and rural settings to better serve today’s older adults and increase their participation in the programs.

“Food is something through which people are easily connected,” Chaudhuri shared. “[Congregate meals] kill two birds with one stone. They address food insecurity and hunger and at the same time they’re also able to provide the social connection that seniors need.” 

The goal of ACL’s INNU grants is to enhance the quality, effectiveness, and proven outcomes of nutrition services programs within the aging services network. Innovative program models promote socialization, health, and well-being of older adults not only through healthy nutritious meals but also through access to a range of services such as nutrition screenings, counseling, social engagement, technology education, and information on healthy aging.

Chaudhuri and her team are partnering with Mays Business School, Texas Health and Human Services, and SNAP-Ed to help Texas nutrition providers develop innovations and test creative programming, marketing, and success outcomes through their INNU project titled Texas Congregate Meal Initiative (TCMI).

The three-year TCMI project kicked off in September 2019 with two statewide surveys to better understand the needs of seniors. The first survey included people 60 and older and revealed that seniors have changed as new generations age. For example, Chaudhuri shared that while individuals in the 60-70 age range might continue working beyond what we typically think of as retirement age, seniors in their 70s might be taking care of their grandkids. Other differences between age groups include different tastes in meals, different preferences in activities, and different adaptations to modern technology.

“For the 60-70 age group, if you’re providing a meal in the middle of the day, they won’t be able to join,” Chaudhuri said. “If your clientele is more like 60-70, try to provide dinner right after work where they can come and eat and talk and then go home. People who are 85 and above have completely different needs, which means you may need different programming for different age groups.”

Another interesting TCMI finding is the negative perception of the word “senior” by older adults themselves. Modern seniors often don’t consider themselves “seniors” and are less likely to accept help if they believe it is charity or a hand out to the frail aging population. This is why they would more readily attend meals in a setting called “Cafe Connections” than a setting called “Senior Connections.”

Chaudhuri and her team also surveyed community health providers who can refer seniors to the community-based supports such as congregate meal programs during medical checkups or during discharges from hospitals. Her team learned that there is no standardized referral process to Texas congregate meal programs. This makes it more challenging for nurses, social workers and/or physicians to refer seniors who need social engagement, meals, or nutritional help to the programs designed specifically to meet these needs. 

Throughout summer 2020, Chaudhuri’s team conducted 29 virtual focus groups across 28 Area Agencies of Aging in Texas, talking to local nutrition providers and agency administrators, identifying the existing barriers and facilitators for the meal programs across Texas. The focus groups revealed a lack of awareness about congregate meal programs. To combat this challenge, Chaudhuri recommended continuous and consistent marketing.

The second phase of a TCMI Learning Collaborative kicked off in October 2020 with a 3-day virtual workshop with 16 selected nutrition providers across the state learning to develop programmatic innovations with guidance from subject matter experts from PPRI, Mays Business School, SNAP-Ed, aging administrators from other states and Texas business leaders. The providers also learn from their peers in this model and engage in meaningful local community partnerships to rethink program strategies and improve program outcomes. 

More at the College of Liberal Arts