Health Food Matters
This is the original draft of an article that will be published in Business of Aging, Fall 2016. I wrote as part of a five person series sharing aging-innovations from cultures outside of the United States.
To see the edited & published version see: Destination Singapore! Special thanks to Lori Bitters & Jeffrey Rosenfeld, PhD for including my perspective and the constant support.
Learning from Other Cultures - Health Food Matters, Singapore
It is incredible to think that in a single century, we have extended our length of life by 35-plus years. In the same timeframe, technology has evolved to enable instantaneous communication across oceans, produced software that can coordinate care and manage health, and even assemble a robot named Pepper that senses emotion and leads group exercises. Technology and innovations that serve our aging communities are current hot-topics leaving developers and media-consumers hungry for stories that share these practices.
At the Ageing Asia Innovation Forum 2016 hosted in Singapore, professionals, inventors, and problem solvers from all over the world gathered to exchange best practices related to integrated care and building aging-friendly communities. I was able to weasel my way in in exchange for writing notes and articles for their online journal. The conference was filled with a plethora of products and designs meant to make life more comfortable for aging adults and their caretakers. After playing with robots and trying on no-slip socks, one innovation in particular caught my attention.
Grace Gan, a speech therapist and native Singaporean, recognized the difficulties many older adults have when it comes to diet and appetite. To combat these needs, she created Health Food Matters alongside colleagues from the healthcare sector in Japan. Together, they develop and supply a line of functional food products to serve older adults and people living with disability in care centers across Singapore. What drew me to Grace’s products was her deep connection with community she intended to design for. Her work as a speech therapist enabled her to understand the needs of her patrons and how the stress preparing and serving meals affects the care center ecosystem as whole. As we age, our appetites change since our senses begin to dull influencing our ability to taste and smell our food. Furthermore, many older adults in institutional care live with neurocognitive disorders that cause dysphagia where trouble swallowing can result in malnutrition and dehydration. Malnutrition and dehydration can lead to the on-set of other conditions such as bed sores, infection and hypoglycemia, adding to further decline in health and quality of life.
To Grace, the current solution to this problem was simply not good enough. Many care settings use milk supplements to thicken food or provide extra nutrients. While there is a function and a place for these milk supplements, we need to provide more effective paths to deliver nourishment and alleviate burden felt by the entire care ecosystem. I recalled my own experiences working in memory care centers, creating cups of liquid food enhanced by pumping thickeners that made me lose any appetite of my own. A common way to combat low appetite and malnutrition is the attempt to get the person to eat more. However, this is not always physically or cognitively possible whether the person has a low attention-span or may need a caregiver to assist with the acts of feeding. Instead, packing each bite with as much nutrients and supplements can work to fight against malnutrition and dehydration.
Fortunately, I was able to try some of these products myself. I picked up a small sample, closed my eyes, and listened as my taste buds and neurons fired with delight. Although the sample was soft and squishy, I could still feel a texture resembling actual food. It tasted like the cornbread that my aunt, a chef, would make. I felt comforted.
In connection to their community, Grace and her colleagues from the healthcare sector develop their own products that are small in portion, yet densely packed with extra nutrients, proteins and calories. This hits at Singapore’s efficiency-driven narrative to create sustainable and innovative solutions to problems. Developing this food line offers the ability to infuse local flavors that even further appeal to Singaporean elders. Products range from porridges, side dishes, snacks and desserts to condiments and thickeners with a variety of flavors that serve different functions. As an alternative to thickened fluids, apple ENA-charge fruit jelly for instance, supplement fiber while apricot fruit jelly supplement zinc and iron. Calcium sprinkles can be added to porridges or side dishes providing flavor, color, and extra vitamins that can combat low appetite and malnutrition.
In addition to keeping older adults in mind when developing functional food products, Grace recognized the burden felt by caregivers during mealtimes. Already short staffed and burned-out, caregivers must chop and prepare food to support the individualized needs and diets for whom they give care. Her products manage to save on manpower since they are easy to prepare by simply submerging in water or adding heat. Nurses and care staff can focus on caring for residents rather than worrying about the viscosity and size of their food. Grace’s food line is likely more appetizing than many thickeners already used in care settings as it turns what could be forced-feeding into what should be an enjoyable, shared dining experience amongst aging residents. Care settings that serve Health Food Matters to their residents have reported improved health outcomes in addition to minimal food wastage since residents thoroughly enjoy their meals.
Above all, what I love most about Health Food Matters is its ability to restore dignity to aging communities who consume her products. Humans love to cook, we love to eat, and we love to do this with others. As we age, a variety of barriers often make this impossible. A person may experience function loss leading to a decrease in appetite to the extent where they stop absorbing the joy provided at dinner tables. When this happens, they may miss out on the social and spiritual experiences these meal times provide. Ultimately, not having these experiences can drastically affect quality of life if mealtimes, something so pleasurable, become painful.
As the number of older adults continue to increase globally at rapid rates, intervention designers will look to innovation and technology to fill profound service and support needs for this community. Singapore is considered to be a leader in cutting edge, efficient, sustainable, technology and these trends are seeping into the aged-care world. While technology-based interventions have the ability to make services and spaces perhaps more efficient, professionals and experts warn that these trendy devices are only part of the solution and should be implemented with caution and ethical evaluation. Health Foods Matter, is just one innovation from Singapore that puts this theme of efficiency into a much greater problem solving context.
Thank you, Grace. Your work means that mealtimes can continue to be spiritual gatherings shared with the ones we love even until our later ages. As our world continues to age at a rapid rate, businesses like Health Food Matters will disrupt the current trends and services with insider-driven innovation. Grace’s products embody The Business of Aging as her work caring for aging communities led to the creation of a functional food-line that supports the needs of the entire aging-care ecosystem. The Business of Aging hopes to support innovators invested in finding new practices to support aging communities by building on cross-cultural solutions such as Health Food Matters and many more.
**All photos taken from www.healthfoodmatters.com.sg**