Sheridan's Centre for Elder Research releases food security toolkit for older adults who may be at risk of social isolation
When Dr. Leigh Hayden of Sheridan's Centre for Elder Research first began the proposal process for what would become the Putting Food on the Table project, she never imagined the far-reaching impact it would have for older adults in Halton.
“We understood that a need for easily accessible, nutritious food had arisen for older adults in the community due to the pandemic, and wanted to respond in a tangible way. Particularly given the heightened risk of serious illness among older adults, we realized that this group may lose access to much needed healthy food options,” said Dr. Hayden.
As principal investigator, Dr. Hayden spearheaded the project in collaboration with Dr. Sara Cumming, professor from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and community partners, Community Development Halton and Food for Life. The goal of the project was to help community agencies safely and efficiently meet the nutritional and social needs of older adults in Halton region. The project was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
The project wrapped up in fall 2021. With the help of Sheridan researchers, the project team was able to obtain direct feedback from older adult stakeholders that led to a better understanding of their specific social and nutritional needs during the height of lockdowns, such as their need for more protein-rich items in the food packages. The insight from the surveys spearheaded by the team culminated in a toolkit that will extend the project's legacy long after its completion by empowering additional agencies with actionable insight.
Pre-pandemic, 16 community residences for seniors in the Halton Region partnered with Food for Life to provide weekly access to free, nutritious food via common areas in their buildings. Amidst the pandemic, a large proportion of older adults living in community housing did not leave their homes and required supports to survive, particularly as community food programs were put on hold due to public health guidance and restrictions in congregate settings. To meet evolving needs, Food for Life transitioned to supplying individual food packages for residents who were previously participating in a program.
From August 2020 to July 2021, the Sheridan researchers behind the Putting Food on the Table project worked to understand how these nutritious foods and other supports provided to older adults living in community housing could be improved. The research team connected with 700 older adults living in Halton to assess their needs and provide nutritional resources that were delivered directly to their door. The project's purpose was three-fold: to better understand the food and social needs of older adult Food for Life clients; improve their offering based on data; and measure the impact of the intervention.
“Those we serve have always been at the centre of all the decisions we make at Food for Life. Working alongside Sheridan College has allowed us to have a richer understanding of how to better support our neighbours, gleaning important feedback as we serve some of our most vulnerable in the community,” said Donna Slater, Director of Impact at Food for Life.
An initial survey conducted by the research team found that 40% of participants felt their wellbeing was worse than before the pandemic, and the majority didn't feel comfortable leaving their homes. An early takeaway saw the team switch from an online evaluation survey to a paper-based survey which better suited the older adult group that was targeted. This pivot dramatically increased response rates, and subsequently led to more tailored supply deliveries based on a respondent's need and preference. Using data from the first survey, Food for Life applied for and received additional funding from United Way for PPE. Final survey feedback showed a clear increase in satisfaction – 66% of respondents said that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the packages after ten months, from an initial 8% at baseline.
“We are thrilled about the outcomes and the tangible results measured through the final survey which has shown how meaningful and impactful the project has been for our participants. I'm encouraged and excited by our results and look forward to planning a second phase of this project,” said Dr. Hayden.
Sheridan students were important contributors in enhancing the wellbeing of the older adults who received these packages, furthering the project's goal of addressing the social needs of isolated older adults as well. Social Service Worker student Chloe Shackleton helped develop and deploy the surveys while Honours Bachelor of Interaction Design student Heather Mazzonna helped the team develop approaches to improve the packages to enhance their usefulness and social value. Based on the survey insights, the project team engaged Honours Bachelor of Craft and Design – Textile students to design and fabricate homemade face masks which were included in the packages. Students from the Honours Bachelor of Music Theatre Performance program created a virtual cabaret with love songs, performed virtually for residents at different community housing buildings.
The successful outcomes and lessons learned from the research team's intervention have been shared in a publicly accessible Project Toolkit on SOURCE, Sheridan's digital repository, to help other community groups both locally and abroad understand and address the food security needs of older adults in their communities. The kit outlines the step-by-step approach that was undertaken by the research team, including the full project methodology, and shares lessons learned to facilitate the replication of the project in other regions. The toolkit also includes resources such as recipe cards for older adults, a summary of the survey responses collected, and food storage tips and tricks.
“As an applied research centre, the Centre for Elder Research understands the value of toolkits as one of the final deliverables of a project. The toolkit shares the products and the methods developed by the project team, so other community organizations can use these in their own settings to better understand and address community needs. This helps amplify the impact of the work and the investment,” explained Dr. Hayden.
This article was adapted and republished with permission from Sheridan College.
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