Malnutrition in the elderly is an underrecognized condition that is increasing in prevalence. If left untreated, malnutrition leads to a progressive decline in overall health and reduced physical and cognitive function. 

Eventually this silent killer can lead to longer hospital stays, readmissions, a myriad of chronic health issues and even death. In fact, deaths from malnutrition among older adults have more than doubled from 2018 to 2022, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. 

Accurate prevention and diagnosis of malnutrition is important for resident health outcomes as well as your community’s resource utilization. The good news is timely identification of this nutrition problem by a registered dietitian (RD) can help residents live healthier lives and help your community save money.

Simply stated, malnutrition is a lack of sufficient nutrients in the body. As people age, they often become less active, and their metabolism slows, so they need less food. At the same time, older adults’ abilities to absorb and utilize nutrients decreases. In addition, many chronic illnesses and the corresponding treatments that are common in skilled nursing facilities are known to lead to unintentional weight loss and affect nutrient metabolism. For most seniors, nutrient requirements actually increase over time. 

Malnutrition can be reversed if caught early by knowledgeable RDs and healthcare professionals. Because protocols for nutrition screening are rigorous when a resident is admitted to a SNF and weights are routinely monitored, there is opportunity to identify and intervene quickly. 

Prevention and quick intervention are the most important ways to combat the detrimental effects of malnutrition. There’s no quick fix, but generally the sooner you’re able to provide person-centered nutrition support, the better the outcomes. 

It’s imperative that communities fully engage RDs who are experts at: 

  • Evaluating residents’ nutritional health and identifying at-risk individuals 
  • Developing personalized nutrition care plans to help manage chronic illness and improve overall health 
  • Facilitating interdisciplinary team communications, especially when residents are transferred from one care setting to another 
  • Coaching community staff with proven tips and techniques to enhance mealtime experiences and encourage better food intake 

When it comes to malnutrition, the interdisciplinary team must work together. It’s critical that the condition is documented properly in a resident’s health record because it’s the foundation for reimbursement under the Patient-Driven Payment Model system. Supporting documentation and interventions in place should be incorporated into the resident care plan, as this is what would be needed during an audit. If malnutrition is coded and documented correctly on an admission MDS by length of stay day five, communities will receive reimbursement. Without this, SNFs undervalue their services significantly. Undiagnosed malnutrition is missed revenue.

Most senior living and long-term care communities are committed to the promise of helping older adults live their best lives. Families put their trust in dedicated staff who go above and beyond every day to care for their aging and vulnerable loved ones. But malnutrition is a hidden health crisis that can easily go undiagnosed. By implementing a comprehensive malnutrition program that includes regular assessment, resident engagement, person-centered care, and wholesome meals and snacks, executive leaders reap benefits for individual residents and the community as a whole. 

If you’d like to learn more about addressing malnutrition in your community, request the malnutrition e-book from the chatbot on our website.

Emily Fear is the Senior Manager, Area Clinical Support, at Sodexo Seniors.  She is a Registered Dietitian and a Certified Dementia Practitioner with a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. She’s a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Healthy Aging Dietetic Practice Group, the Dietetics in Health Care Communities Dietetic Practice Group, and the Greater Seattle Dietetic Association where she served on the board for six years. 

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