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Prescription for nutrition

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Nutritionists, the federal government and the nursing home industry are joining hands to fight a problem that in this age of affluence should not exist. In the next several months, a consortium of health care providers will distribute a handbook on nutrition to nursing homes, hospitals and other long-term care facilities. The goal is simple: to ensure that nursing home residents are eating and drinking enough. The campaign is meant to save lives, but it also speaks to human dignity.

Two respected studies on the issue claim that 40 percent of the 2-million nursing home residents in America are malnourished. The cause is not necessarily abuse. Some older people lose their appetite and fail to change their diet even after experiencing fatigue, dehydration or loss of weight.

The guides will be distributed to nursing assistants who provide the bulk of bedside care. Caregivers will learn how to spot the warning signs of malnutrition and what steps to take to protect residents from discomfort or serious injury.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate aging committee, is right when he says malnutrition is "morally repugnant" given America's economic wealth. But the campaign will succeed only if nursing homes, which are known to experience high turnover of staff, are committed to making the booklets available and a resource for training employees.

The educational campaign should also reach further and target the millions of Americans who care for elderly relatives or friends in home-based settings. They, even more than health care professionals, would benefit from a handbook that keeps us all vigilant about our seniors.