Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Foundation, focuses on how the hunger crisis has its effect on senior citizens, and calls for awareness and advocacy in delivering aid to those affected by hunger.

Mediaplanet: What makes hunger a particular problem for older people?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:  Hunger deeply affects one’s quality of life, and that’s especially true for America’s older adults. Hunger can lead to any number of chronic diseases that can be particularly devastating for seniors, who also have greater difficulty gaining access to healthy food because of a number of challenges, like limited mobility and the cost of food and medication.

It’s a big problem. More than 10 million Americans age 50 and older are at risk of going hungry every day, and nearly half of that number, some 4.5 million, are between the ages of 50 and 59. They also face a greater risk of developing chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease. The “youngest old,” those between 50 and 59, have a 19 percent rate of diabetes, 28 percent rate of mental and emotional problems, and an astounding 95 percent of them have suffered some degree of limitation in their daily activities, resulting from conditions such as lower bone density, poor vision and reduced muscle mass.

MP: How have unemployment and our economy affected senior hunger?

LR: Food insecurity rates among older adults have more than doubled in the last 10 years, a period that coincides with rough financial times. The recent recession and the resulting unemployment affected Americans across the age spectrum, forcing more people into the ranks of the hungry, with older adults having the hardest time recovering. And that burden is not just felt by the retired segment of the older population where fixed incomes often prove inadequate against rising costs.

In this post-recessionary period, many working-age older adults are finding it extremely difficult to rejoin the workforce. In fact, we are finding that members of this group—between the ages of 50 and 64—often struggle with greater food hardship than their older cohorts because they may not yet be eligible for Social Security and Medicare. When faced with tough choices on how to allocate their limited financial resources, older people tend to skimp on food so they can keep up on medications, keep the lights on, and keep a roof over their heads. In fact, nearly a third of low-income older adults report having skipped meals or bought less nutritious food because of the expense.

MP: What are some emerging trends in the fight to end senior hunger?

"I want to be clear that supporting food banks, taking part in meal-packing events, donating canned goods during food drives—all this grassroots effort—really makes a difference."

LR: We’re in the process of redefining the fight against senior hunger. So much good work happens every day to provide meals for people. It is very important. It meets the critical and immediate need of feeding hungry people. But it doesn't solve food insecurity.

What we have to work harder at is finding long-term solutions that will put an end to senior hunger once and for all. We have to create approaches that challenge the status quo. We must address the root causes of hunger and identify systemic changes that make healthy, safe food more accessible.

MP:  In what way can readers play an active role in stopping senior hunger?

LR: They can become more involved in local efforts to end hunger. I want to be clear that supporting food banks, taking part in meal-packing events, donating canned goods during food drives—all this grassroots effort—really makes a difference.

But we also have to do more as a society, and seeing hunger as the health problem it is represents one of the best ways to call needed national attention to the issue. By raising awareness of these health consequences, and through identifying and bringing to scale the programs that work, we can turn society’s attention to the problem.

The energy and knowledge is there to break the cycle of hunger and poverty. The resources are available to bring the voice of older adults to this critical conversation. It bears repeating: This fundamental restructuring to address the root causes of hunger and food insecurity through partnerships across sectors is what it will take to make a dent in an increasingly serious issue for older adults and many, many others.