Nutrition is a determinant in numerous aspects of health and well-being. Dawn Pittman, of the Western Regional School of Nursing (WRSON), is exploring how we can help improve nutrition among older adults in Western Newfoundland and throughout the province. It is work that is vital to understanding and addressing the health challenges that are facing a population that is aging and often geographically isolated.
This research is part of Pittman’s PhD Studies at the Memorial University School of Nursing under the direction of supervisor Dr. Karen Parsons. As she explains, it is also an exploration into an emerging field of study in nursing, environmental health:
“I wanted to do something more proactive, more preventative. I started looking at environmental health, that’s what I was really interested in and it’s kind of a new area, especially within nursing. I’m looking at that plus nutrition in older adults.”
Environmental health considers the way in which a person’s built and natural surroundings affect their health. These surroundings could include the infrastructure available to the person, including transport routes like highways, or factors such as the climate of the area where they live. These combine with aging, and other social influences, to make nutrition in older adults a complex topic of study.
“As you age you might have arthritis in your hands, you might not be able to chop up vegetables anymore, or you might not have a car so you can’t go to the grocery store,”
“Also there are big environmental factors that impact what we eat such as our climate, transportation systems, even our social environment because as you age and your children leave the home you may not want to be cooking for yourself anymore. There are a lot of things that affect what we eat. I’m trying to map those specifically to Western Newfoundland.”
Pittman is working with four community partners, Western Health, Grenfell, Western Environment Centre, and Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital Heritage Corp, as well as patient partners to carry out this research. Interviews with older adults will be conducted with those aged forty-five plus:
“The reason is that a forty-five-year-old today will be a sixty-five-year-old in twenty years, so we need to know what affects both age groups today to find out what will affect them tomorrow.”
Data collection will be conducted in two phases. The first phase will include focus groups with older adults and interviews with informants. Informants could include anyone from grocers, who bring food into Western Newfoundland, to church clergy who interact with older adults. A local store owner might see their customers come and go at certain times or may be aware of what people are generally buying in terms of food, for example.
After analysing the data from phase one return trips will be planned with draft proposals for interventions. These ‘phase two’ trips are intended to gather for more feedback. This feedback will help to gauge local interest and support for these proposed interventions.
“Without people wanting these changes, and being able to sustain them, then it really isn’t worth it.”
This research uses a new methodology that was first introduced in 1997 by Sally Thorne, a Canadian nursing researcher and teacher. The methodology focusses on creating research with a direct relevance to nursing practice and on-the-ground action.
“It’s about how to address a problem,”
“You have to create this knowledge that can help guide the profession or guide nurses. It’s all about [the context of where you are studying] too.”
Nurses represent a large group of professionals who often work in rural areas in Western Newfoundland and throughout the province, so they have a chance to make a big impact on access to nutrition. Institutions at Grenfell Campus, such as the Aging Research Centre, also have a role to play. Even organizations not directly involved in this research can use the resulting findings:
“Hopefully they can share this information and use it within their own organization.”
Research outputs will include a toolkit and action plan with suggestions for interventions encompassing both policy and nursing practice.
“People are affected by factors they have control over and factors they do not have control over like economics in Newfoundland,”
“But perhaps knowing how these factors tie into each other we can intervene in the right ways. Western Newfoundland is very much on the forefront of this issue and older people are concerned about what they eat.”
A call for participants is included above, for those interested in taking part.