Can socially engaging meals help elderly?

  • Deborah Condon

A new Irish study is planning to investigate the importance of nutritious and socially engaging meals among older people.

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin are appealing for volunteers to take part in the study, which aims to see whether such meals could help to fight age-related problems in cognition, frailty and overall quality of life. They will do this by tackling the two areas of malnutrition and social isolation.

According to the researchers, many older people in Ireland who live independently are at risk of malnutrition. This refers to under-nutrition that affects a person's health and wellbeing. It can come about if the body cannot use food properly, which can lead to a person losing weight and developing nutritional deficiencies. Certain diseases can also lead to appetite suppression.

Across the EU, including in Ireland, an estimated 5-15% of older adults are already affected. Malnutrition can lead to frailty and impaired cognition, such as memory problems. Cognition is also essential for physical health and social wellbeing.

Meanwhile, another major risk for older adults is social isolation. This can come about as a result of frailty, illness or bereavement.

According to the researchers from Trinity's NEIL (Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives) Programme, isolation and loneliness are as bad for a person as obesity and smoking. They are associated with an increased risk of depression, frailty, sleep problems and dying.

Figures suggest that around 6% of Irish adults over the age of 60 are at risk of social isolation.

This new study aims to tackle the two issues of malnutrition and social isolation. It aims to tap into the 20% of older adults in Ireland who actively volunteer in their communities, to deliver and evaluate a mealtime intervention to older people who are socially isolated.

The intervention will emphaise the social element of the meal as much as the nutritious element. The volunteers will provide nutritional advice, but will also spend time with the isolated people, planning and cooking the meal together and then eating it together as well.

The two-year RelAte study wants to assess whether nutritious and socially engaging meals can mitigate against age-related decline and help people maintain their independence for longer.

The study requires two types of volunteer:
-50 people over the age of 55, who would like to be trained as a NEIL volunteer. They will be expected to deliver the mealtime intervention
-100 socially isolated people over the age of 60 who are currently living alone.

"Physical health, mental health, and engagement with life are the three core aspects of healthy ageing and independent living. We hope the two-year RelAte study will show that social interaction and good nutrition can impact positively on quality of life, frailty and cognitive function," explained principal investigator, Dr Sabina Brennan.

Almost commenting on the study, Prof Brian Lawlor of Trinity College, emphasised that the provision of home-based support for the ageing population ‘is an economic necessity of both national and international priority.'

"At an individual level, home-based care provides individuals with the independence they require to maintain their health, activities and sense of identity in their own home. The RelAte project has far-reaching implications for home-based support and for maintenance of independence into late life, both at a national and an international level," he said.

If you are interested in taking part, contact the project co-ordinator, Dr Joanna McHugh at or call (01) 896 8414.


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