Bringing older South Australians together to share a meal

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By Genevieve Meegan

Sharing a meal with family and friends is something many of us take for granted. While food is at the centre of this experience, it’s the company, the talking, laughing, sharing and socialising that we also need to feed our souls.

But what about those who live alone, such as older Australians, who have no company at meal time?

Not only is eating solo a lonely experience, research shows it can also be detrimental to health outcomes, with many of our parents and grandparents eating poorly or not enough on a daily basis.

It is a serious and under-recognised problem, according to Adelaide researcher Matthew Haren who is tackling the issue head on. Matthew is co-founder and director of Test Kitchen. The idea is simply to find ways to bring older people together at meal times to improve lifestyle and wellbeing and provide a wholistic approach to eating.

“It’s about getting older people to eat more, while enjoying a really nice, fun and positive, life-giving experience,” Matthew explains.

“The theory is then that this improves people’s health and wellbeing, helps maintain functional capacity, reduce hospitalisations and premature nursing home admissions.

“So while this is about encouraging healthy eating for older South Australians, Test Kitchen is also about an experience … the sensory experience of the tastes, sights, sounds of enjoying a meal with others.”

Matthew has worked in the area of frailty and geriatric nutrition for almost 20 years, studying with renowned geriatrician John Morely in St Louis in the States, before returning to work at UniSA in rural health, chronic disease and health promotion.

He says in the 70+ age group of people who live alone, 1 in 3 are undernourished. Matthew’s wife Catherine has also studied in the field and it was her PhD that ignited the idea to launch Test Kitchen in 2015.

“Catherine’s research showed that eating with others leads to greater food intake in older people who are at risk of undernutrition, and it did this because of a particular blend of social interactions around the table,” Matthew explains.

“That gave me the idea and the motivation to start Test Kitchen.

“It was also seeing my mum impacted by boring meal times spent alone, then asking older neighbours about their experiences, and there was a strong sense that a whole segment of the population was sitting back in their home, struggling with this stuff alone.

“This is not about offering seniors specials at the pub, it’s not really about the food or the price, it’s about a fundamentally human aspect of eating which is missing in these people’s lives, and that is someone to share it with. That’s what drives us.”

Matthew and his business partner Julie-Ann Hill began Test Kitchen with the assistance of funding and mentoring support from the Innovation in Ageing Challenge (Office for the Ageing) and in conjunction with Meals on Wheels SA.

It has been a long process to get the idea off the ground, and it continues to be a work in progress due to the logistics involved. Matthew, Julie-Ann and co-partner Bill Chin work with local councils to contact individual households, as well as working in partnership with lifestyle/retirement villages.

Matthew says he is also currently looking for commercial food partners to become involved.

Julie-Ann, who is a chef by trade but has also studied medical science, is passionate about the human interaction, kindness and dignity that epitomises the Test Kitchen experience.

“There are people who fit the Test Kitchen target living right next door to people reading this now, and yet they suffer in silence. And they are suffering mentally, emotionally and eventually physically,” she says.

“Then they cost society a fortune in hospital/ nursing homes because they’re there for extended periods to regain some level of wellness, when they could have avoided being there in the first place if someone had looked over their fence and engaged with them, made them feel valued and ‘wanted’.

“It’s not a huge time commitment, nor financial, but it makes a profound difference to their wellbeing and their overall lives. The world is too fast-paced for the oldies I know, so they disengage with much of it. They want ‘simple’: a conversation with eye contact; a smile, a hug; someone they can call on to change a light bulb or wind the clock back. These are the interactions my neighbours want and it costs me a few minutes from my day. It frustrates the daylights out of me that we as a society and especially at a local community level are too caught up in our self-importance that we can’t spare a few minutes to be neighbourly.”

Test Kitchen will also be running some trial events in the Fleurieu region in coming months including a “street restaurant” model using food trucks and dining in public streets as well as private home gardens.

“At its core, Test Kitchen is about good food in good company for our customers,” Matthew says.

“These people suffer the boredom of eating alone day after day, they lose interest in the mealtime and they lose interest in food. We capture people with both good company, good conversation and good food messages.

“It is about the experience of social connection, and a lively table in contrast to their usual quiet, lonely table.

“I think that the scale of older people living alone, social isolation and the associated under-nutrition is under-recognised. It’s easier to think about people in nursing homes being undernourished, but we are actually talking about people living around us, in our neighbourhoods, on our streets.”

Test Kitchen founder Matt Haren

Find out more and get involved with Test Kitchen here. 

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