Cuts to meals on wheels services highlight a lack of joined-up thinking, says Institute of Hospitality chief executive Peter Ducker
None of us is getting any younger. Put simply, we are all heading for old age if we are lucky, or perhaps not so lucky, depending on where we live. We'd all like to think that there are essential services available to us when we are elderly and in need. Therefore, it is worrying to learn that one third of large UK councils no longer provide a meals on wheels service and half expect to see further reductions in the year ahead. This appears to be a false economy, which is putting greater strain on the NHS.
Meals on wheels services help prevent more serious and costly health issues. Keeping the elderly in the community nourished and hydrated reduces malnutrition-related admissions to hospital, which cost the tax payer considerably more than the service itself. Malnutrition costs the UK £13b a year (more than obesity), £7.3b of which is spent on the elderly.
The meals on wheels service enables and empowers older people to live independently in their own homes for longer. As well as a nutritious daily meal, it provides a much-needed social lifeline. Namely, regular human contact that eases the devastating isolation and loneliness the elderly often endure, and crucial well-being and safety checks.
To raise awareness of Meals on Wheels Week in November the National Association of Care Catering (NACC) invited industry leaders to go out on the road in various parts of the country. I joined the meals on wheels service in St Albans. There were 21 deliveries on our round, which included three with an additional evening snack, gluten-free and vegetarian options. Most of the recipients were elderly, but there were two people who were younger with other challenges in life. Two of the visits were to people who were blind.
I think it is impossible to experience this without feeling humbled by how easy your own life is by comparison. Everyone lived alone, and it was quite apparent that in many cases this would be the only outside contact that day. In addition to delivering meals, we helped one blind lady by moving a trailing flex out of her way, and another by taking a birthday card to be posted. It's a real lifeline.
Mark, whose round I accompanied, was obviously proud of the help he was giving, and saw his role in a much broader light than just delivering food. When I talk with people about the Institute of Hospitality, they seem to see only luxury hotels and fine-dining restaurants. I take great pride in knowing that colleagues in this broad industry are providing a service below the radar for most people, and that is such an important part of the social-care fabric of our society. The NACC is calling on the government to make meals on wheels a statutory responsibility. Their campaign deserves our full support.