The influence of functional status and social support on dietary quality of elderly women

Date of Completion

January 1998


Gerontology|Women's Studies|Health Sciences, Nutrition|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies




Older adults require an adequate diet to optimize health and quality of life. However, declining functional capabilities during the later years can make food acquisition, preparation, or consumption difficult. In response, family, friends, and formal providers may extend support to help disabled elderly meet their nutritional needs. The impact of functional loss on food intake most likely depends on the level of impairment as well as the quality of social support. The purpose of this study was twofold: (i) to provide descriptive information on providers and types of nutrition-related social support, and (ii) to examine the joint effects of functional status and nutrition-related social support on diet quality. An opportunistic sample was recruited from rent-assisted housing sites. All subjects were female, age 75-95, and living alone. Selection procedures ensured that the sample included women with functional status ratings ranging from excellent to severely impaired. In the first research phase, four focus groups (n = 35) and 12 key informant interviews were conducted. Content analysis of the qualitative data resulted in a classification scheme of nutrition-related helping behaviors. In the second phase, 102 home interviews were conducted to assess functional status, food frequency patterns, and social support. Ninety percent of the women reported instrumental support for food acquisition, while less than half reported emotional or informational support for special diet needs. Hierarchical regression was used to investigate the relationships between function, support and diet. Results indicated that number of support providers moderated the effect of functional status on diet quality (p $<$ 0.01, Adj. R$\sp2$ = 0.08). Women with few helpers had marginally adequate diets, regardless of functional status. The diet quality of women who received more help varied by functional status. No significant joint effect was found between functional status and number of support types on diet quality. Functional status and instrumental support were moderately correlated (r = $-$0.49). In conclusion, the providers of nutrition-related social support should be considered when assessing nutrition risk, planning nutrition education programs, or establishing food programs for older adults. ^