The elderly woman had been wasting away for more than a year, sinking under the burden of caring for her frail, sick husband at home. Now at 81 and three months after his death, she was in danger herself.
When a social worker and dietitian visited, the woman was carrying a meager 58 pounds on her 4-foot-7-inch frame.
"She looked like a Holocaust victim," Fernando Torres-Gil, the top federal aging services official, said as he told the story Wednesday at a gathering of 9,000 dietitians. "Clearly, the mother was malnourished."
An aging services agency in Kansas got involved, getting the woman a home-delivered meal each day, providing a vitamin and mineral supplement and counseling the woman and her adult children about eating habits.
"Within two weeks, the woman had gained weight," said Torres-Gil, the assistant secretary for aging in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But that success story is too rare. Despite a $1-billion program to help feed older Americans, about 5-million of them go hungry or worry about how to pay for their next meal, one study says. Another study places that number higher, at about 8-million.
"It is a tragic situation and an indictment of our society," Torres-Gil said at the American Dietetic Association meeting in the Orange County Convention Center.
Torres-Gil and Eunshil Shim, the head of the association's gerontological nutritionists' group, say there are several reasons for the hunger. Too many older people don't have the money to cover their expenses, as pensions, savings and Social Security fail to keep pace with rising costs of food, prescription drugs, property taxes and transportation.
"What do you do if you need to pay for medicine or buy food?" asked Shim, a consultant from Jacksonville. "Most pay for the medicine and skip a meal a day."
Such actions lead to malnutrition and illnesses that are having an uncalculated cost on Medicare.It makes fiscal _ as well as moral _ sense to make sure everyone eats well, Torres-Gil said.
Torres-Gil has made nutrition a priority in his section of HHS, funding screening of older people to determine who is at risk of "food insecurity," as advocates for the elderly are calling it. But he said without fundamental reforms in health care and long-term care, the situation won't improve.