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One in five nursing home residents malnourished, study finds

One in five residents in Canberra's nursing homes are malnourished.

One in five residents in Canberra's nursing homes are malnourished. Photo: Supplied

One in five residents of Canberra's nursing homes is malnourished, new research has found.

And symptoms of malnutrition are frequently confused for natural signs of ageing, according to the report by a Canberra academic.

Researcher Jane Kellett, a dietetics and nutrition lecturer at the University of Canberra, found 22 per cent of residents at Canberra nursing homes were either moderately or severely malnourished. Ms Kellett will present the research at the Dietitians Association of Australia's national conference in Canberra on Thursday.

A second report to be presented at the conference found that nearly half of older Australians receiving nursing care at home are malnourished.

Ms Kellett assessed 101 residents at five nursing homes for what she said was the first territory-based study of malnutrition in aged care facilities.

Residents volunteered for the study and were medically assessed for weight changes, dietary intake and the frequency of gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea.

A physical assessment looked at their fat and muscle stores.

The ACT has just under 3000 people living in nursing homes and Ms Kellett found that 20 per cent of the residents she assessed were moderately malnourished and 2 per cent were severely malnourished.

Her report does not name the individual nursing homes used for the study. The research also excluded residents receiving high levels of medical care, or who had cognitive illnesses such as dementia.

"They were too unwell to participate and they're a high risk group and had they been included I think the statistics would have been higher," Ms Kellett said.

Similar studies in other states have found as many as half of residents of aged care facilities suffer from malnutrition.

Ms Kellett said that malnutrition in nursing homes, while not due to improper care, was too often mistaken as a symptom of ageing.

"They're very similar indicators and it's important malnutrition is recognised and not left untreated," she said.

"We need to recognise that malnutrition isn't part of ageing."

The dietetics lecturer said the causes were "multifaceted" and included factors associated with ageing, such as a reduction in skeletal muscle mass and body weight, as well as other possible limitations, including difficulty swallowing, reduced appetite, inadequate nutritional intake, depression and dementia.

Residents who participated in her study that were found to be malnourished were referred for medical attention and assistance from a dietitian or nutritionist.

Ms Kellett said study of malnutrition in Australia's ageing population was becoming more important as the number of Australians over the age of 65 grew. The number of Australians in that age group is expected to more than double in the next 30 years.

"Because that group is increasing, there's a lot of research on obesity but there's not a lot on malnutrition, which is probably just as important," Ms Kellett said.

"We've heard about hospital malnutrition for years but there isn't much research on malnutrition in residential aged care facilities.

"No one had done this in residential aged care in the ACT."


  • The problem doesn't lie solely in Canberra. There are hundreds of aged care nursing homes that need to be investigated. For example, nursing home staff turning the heating down during winter.

    ALL nursing home staff should be made to undergo a 3 year nursing course. It is disgusting that people off the street can gain employment as nurses without any training at all.

    Just because a nursing home worker is a nun does not give them the right to work as nurses!!!!!!!

    There should be a royal commission into the operations of nursing homes, especially in country NSW!!!

    Date and time
    May 23, 2013, 9:50AM
    • Assistants in Nursing do a sixth month course - Cert3.

      The RN does meds and dressings and is too busy to control AINs. I was one for three years.

      They can't get staff to stay - neither RNs or AINs. It's horrific to work in. Three minute showers at 6.30 AM etc etc.

      Main meals are at lunch time. Evening meal is supper.

      Most people have no idea what goes on and the Accreditation visits are a joke.

      Welcome to my nightmare.

      Date and time
      May 23, 2013, 10:36AM
    • @ain: a thankless job for the most part. I applaud any who are able to maintain their positivity and gentle attitude to the residents. It takes a special nature to work with people who can only move at snail's pace - I certainly don't have the personality for it.

      Date and time
      May 23, 2013, 1:10PM
    • Given the difficulty of the work, it's easy to complain about the care in Nursing homes and incredibly hard to fix. Are you willing to pay nurses in nursing homes more? Imagine dealing with a situation of incontinence and senility on a daily basis. It's not easy.

      Date and time
      May 23, 2013, 5:16PM
  • I visited my mother-in-law at a certain nursing home on mother's day. We happened to be there as they served up dinner, the plate comprised 5 very small fish cocktails and a maybe a dessert spoon of what looked like coleslaw, a glass of weak cordial, and a cup of coffee. That was it. My husband went out to the main dining room to see what everyone else was having, it was the same. After speaking with kitchen staff he returned with some bread and a cup of soup. I understand that old people don't eat much however, they should be given something more nutritional than that. It also makes me wonder what she has for the other meals. Not much I am sure, we do take other things to supplement her diet.

    Date and time
    May 23, 2013, 9:52AM
    • I'm not surprised. When my late mother was in a nursing home I frequently saw trays of food dropped in front of elderly patients unable to feed themselves then picked up again untouched later. None of the staff were interested in ensuring they were helped to eat - that was left to whatever visitors were available and motivated to help.Unfortunately, the low pay levels of nursing home staff seems to equate with the level of interest they show in patients in their care.

      Gungahlin Girl
      Date and time
      May 23, 2013, 9:56AM
      • I don't think it's necessarily just with nursing homes. When my uncle had a stroke he was unable to move enough in the hospital bed to reach the food. Given he was also very confused and disoriented, he also didn't have the wherewithal to call for a staff member to help him.

        We discovered that sometimes the food was just being removed by the same person who brought it, with no one else having any knowledge as to whether or not he'd eaten it.

        It takes a huge number of staff hours for people to feed patients like this. Whenever we see people suggesting that it's possible for nurses to look after more than 4/6 patients at a time, they forget the ones like him, who could easily occupy someone for many hours a day just with basic necessities.

        Date and time
        May 23, 2013, 1:14PM
    • I think malnutrition has been a problem in large care facilities for many years. I am pleased it may now be addressed but in my experience aged people can use the lack of food as a means of ending a life that they see is at its end because there is no pleasure or joy in continuing to live a life that has no future.

      Date and time
      May 23, 2013, 10:21AM
      • Many nursing (so careing) homes are legally forced to operate and comply in exactly the same way.For example a patient who is medcially totally immobile,completely helpless has all three daily meals placed beside their bed out of reach(so they can be billed for the meals) although no one is there to feed them.Thats common behaviour.So the meals are binned, thousands everyday .Caring industries are profitable.

        Date and time
        May 23, 2013, 10:30AM
        • Not true! Lack of care staff is the reason why residents don't get fed. The staff simply don't have time!

          Tutt Tutt
          Date and time
          May 23, 2013, 12:44PM

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