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From our Fellows: Feeding Our Seniors, One Prescription at a Time

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland’s fellowship, known as The Innovation Mission, is a powerful opportunity for accomplished professionals to advance their innovative ideas to change the trajectory of poverty in Cleveland. The five professionals we selected for The Innovation Mission began the fellowship in November 2017. We will be sharing their journey over the course of 18 months. Next in our fellows series: Dabney Conwell, vice president, Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging; executive director, Rose Centers for Aging Well.


Most of us know what it feels like to be lonely sometimes, but we’re lucky enough to have not had the experience of total isolation. For a large percentage of our nation’s seniors, isolation is increasingly normal – and with it, severe health issues and food insecurity.

Ohio has one of the largest older adult populations in the country, and it’s growing. The Scripps Center projects that the concentration of persons 60 years and older in Cuyahoga County will go from 21 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2020, and then to 31 percent in 2030. Our residents are living longer, but that doesn’t always equate to a better quality of life.

More than half of Cleveland’s older adults are poor, living right at or below the minimum income to be self-sufficient. These individuals are more likely to experience chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, which have serious consequences and side effects that can land them in the hospital. Other health issues and low physical activity also contribute to hospital admission, and things aren’t much better when it’s time to go home from a stay.

Hospital best practices for discharge will often include the identification of patients at risk for readmission, and identification of a caregiver to help manage the discharge instructions. That’s helpful for those with access to a caregiver, but what about those individuals who go home to their lower socio-economic community alone?

The Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law reports that food is a core component to preventing and recovering from hospital stays. Some programs to incorporate nutrition into medical care have been implemented in small pockets around the country, but many are not sufficient for older recuperating adults who lack the physical capacity to prepare food, or the assistance of a caregiver.

If an older adult is frail or struggling physically, that may be a barrier to their ability to prepare food, especially if that preparation requires using an appliance that requires the user’s functional abilities, like a microwave or a toaster oven.

What if health care professionals could prescribe hot meals, delivered by a real person, who spends some time in the home and helps alleviate some of those feelings of isolation?

We know nutrition and hydration are keys to a healthy life, so why don’t we prescribe food like we prescribe medicine? I’m looking forward to exploring this idea over the next year. It’s my passion to ensure my voice influences programs, policies and practices for the assurances of higher quality of life for this specific group of older adults.


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Dabney Conwell

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