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Careful in the Kitchen

By  Jennifer Bradley, Staff Writer

 

The best place to be as a child was in Grandma’s kitchen, especially when she’s taking a fresh tray of cookies out of the oven.  Sneaking a bite of cookie dough was a must for any youngster. Grandma may have thought nothing of it then, but today, the risks of eating raw eggs are well known.  For seniors, these stakes are even higher.  A caregiver may be today’s gateway to good health for their loved one, starting at the basic knowledge of food safety.

My, how times have changed

It’s safe to say that the way the world “goes round” in 2010 is much more advanced than it was 10 years ago, at the turn of the century. A decade can make a big difference. In 2000, the Internet was just taking shape. Today, it’s a necessity for almost all people’s daily lives. So, if a decade can change things, what about four, or five, even more? Some loved ones may be reaching into their 80s or 90s, and in the 1950s or 60s, when they were raising their families, doing most of their own baking and cooking, life was a lot different.

The way food is produced, harvested, distributed and prepared has evolved hand-in-hand with technology. Scientific advances have shown that new and dangerous bacteria and viruses can be found in foods; these microorganisms were not even known years ago.  Food modification, mass production and mass distribution have led people away from homegrown, fresh vegetables and meat, leading almost all to rely on others, even those long distances away, to provide for their daily nutritional needs.

Science has identified illnesses that can come from food, as well as ways people in the later years of life are more susceptible to contracting foodborne health issues. A caregiver has the responsibility to know and respect the way a loved one used to live, while teaching and helping them understand the way they must live to be healthy today.

Special Risks for Seniors

Foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning, can be serious, even fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year 76 million people fall ill, 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die from food-related infections and illness in the United States. Many of these victims are very young, very old, or have weakened immune systems, unable to fight infection normally.

Seniors have always been grouped with the “women and children” crowd. This has been for good reason; they are able to catch germs easier and also hold onto them longer. Age causes changes in a body, slowing the food digestion process. The stomach and intestinal tract process foods slower, and a loved one’s liver and kidneys are slower to rid their body of toxins. This even alters a person’s sense of taste and smell.  Added to the natural effects of aging, all chronic illnesses, and medications, and the unwelcome addition of food poisoning can become very serious very fast. Vigilance when handling, preparing and consuming foods is important for a loved one to have. For caregivers, awareness and education are crucial.

Are You Sick?

Teaching a loved one when to recognize they are experiencing a negative reaction to food will help identify the problem after the fact. First, caregivers must understand that there is a wide range of time that can pass between eating food with harmful bacteria and the onset of symptoms.

Usually, foodborne illness takes one to three days to develop. The common assumption is that it’s caused by a person’s last meal. This may be true, but not necessarily. There are many factors to consider, including the type of bacteria which was in the affected food. The range of time could be from 20 minutes to 6 weeks, at extreme circumstances. Even then, it’s possibly a different illness. Some common symptoms of food poisoning are feeling sick to the stomach, vomiting or diarrhea. Others could be flu-like, including a fever as well as head and body aches. Professionals suggest a caregiver check with their loved one’s doctor if they suspect food is to blame for an illness.

Eating In

It used to be all foods were grown at home. Today’s younger generations are trying to return to a semblance of that lifestyle; but for most, climate and convenience will never leave them completely independent for all food. Many elderly loved ones will remember the days gone by when they ate the same potato they dug the hole in the ground for and planted months prior. There was no need to worry about exactly where food came from. Because of this, a loved one may have a greater trust for food than the rest of society, or greater distrust.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers some guidelines for proper food prep at home. First, “clean.” Wash hands and surfaces often and well. Bacteria can be found throughout a kitchen, including on utensils, cutting boards, sponges and countertops. Use warm water and soap for all washing of hands and cooking supplies. When cutting boards develop worn and hard to clean surfaces, they should be replaced. A loved one may consider paper towels just extra waste, but they are very good at preventing bacteria buildup.

Next, “separate.” Cross-contamination is how bacteria is spread, especially when handling raw meat, poultry and seafood.  Separate these foods from other foods in a shopping cart and also in the refrigerator. Use different cutting boards for them as well. Wash utensils and other dishes after coming in contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and unwashed fresh produce. A big
“no-no” is putting cooked food on the same plate the raw was on previously. Bacterial residue on the plate could contaminate the cooked food.

After separating, “cook” foods to proper temperatures. The FDA explains that foods are cooked safely when heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful bacteria. There are many guidelines available for temperatures to watch for when cooking a variety of foods. Visit www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/Seniors/ucm182679.htm for more information.

Finally, the FDA advises seniors to “chill,” and not in the way a teenager would mean! While stored at room temperature, bacteria in food may double every 20 minutes. Caregivers should teach a loved one to refrigerate foods quickly to keep bacteria at bay. Many people believe it’s not good to put hot food in a refrigerator, but the FDA says it keeps a person safe to do so.

With some simple guidelines, a caregiver can show their loved one how to eat safely at home and avoid problems down the road.

Eating Out

The McDonald’s trend hit the United States in the late 1950s, and has grown into a full-blown way of life since then. No longer is eating out a “treat” for a special occasion, such as a birthday, anniversary or first date. Sure, people may still dine at a fancier restaurant for those times, but grabbing a sandwich or salad is a regular habit.  Today, nearly 50 percent of the money spent on food goes toward meals that other people prepare.

It can be easy to simply trust that the food served at a restaurant is suitable for consumption. Each person should learn to be their own advocate and a senior loved one is no exception. They may be experiencing an age-related dulling of the senses, minimizing their ability to recognize an unsafe situation. As at home, don’t eat raw or undercooked food. Make sure hot meals are hot and if the food is not cooked properly, encourage a loved one to speak up and send it back. It’s better to be safe than worry about “hurting someone’s feelings.”   

The trend in restaurants today is leaning toward large meal portions. Many seniors end up packing the leftovers to take home. The FDA advises that if the leftover food will not be refrigerated within two hours of leaving the restaurant, it’s safer to leave it there. Some senior centers across the country won’t even allow food to be taken home because they know of the dangers when food is left sitting out too long.

Foods to Avoid

The FDA offers a list of foods seniors are advised to avoid:

  • Raw fin fish and shellfish, including oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops;
  • Hot dogs and luncheon meats, unless they are reheated until steaming hot;
  • Raw or unpasteurized milk or soft cheeses (such as Feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese) unless they are labeled as made with pasteurized milk;
  • Refrigerated pates or meat spreads; (Canned or shelf-stable pates and meat spreads may be eaten.)
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood unless it is contained in a cooked dish, such as a casserole; (Canned or shelf-stable smoked seafood may be eaten.)
  • Raw or lightly cooked egg or egg products containing raw eggs such as salad dressings, cookie or cake batter, sauces, and beverages such as eggnog; (Foods made from commercially pasteurized eggs are safe to eat.)
  • Raw meat or poultry;
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, clover, and radish); and
  • Unpasteurized or untreated fruit or vegetable juice.

Be a Better Shopper

Reading labels is becoming more and more essential for all age groups. Many people have adverse affects from the ingredient MSG, especially those in the senior community. The other labels to look for are the open dates on raw foods such as meats, eggs and dairy products. Most important are the “sell by,” “best if used by,” and “use by” dates. Caregivers can teach their loved one how to read these labels and also check refrigerators to ensure food has not gone bad and poses a problem for bacteria growth.

Raw meat, poultry and seafood should also be placed in a separate plastic bag, so the juices do not leak onto other groceries. Buy only pasteurized milk, cheese and other dairy products. Teach a loved one to buy only eggs from the refrigerated section of the store, and check canned goods for dents, cracks or bulging lids.
With a few small tricks and tips, a caregiver can encourage a loved one to eat good, nutritious meals safely.

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