HIDI highlights inherent challenges when reporting on vulnerable adults 

Photo: Ken Lund via Flickr

People do what they must to survive, says the subject of a story by Lisa Gillespie, health reporter at NPR affiliate WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. Even if it means traveling three hours back and forth to a food pantry, then lifting heavy bags that likely will exacerbate chronic conditions such as congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Gillespie introduces listeners to Shaun Clay, a 61-year-old man on a fixed income who struggles with food insecurity. Clay’s situation is repeated all too often among the poor, especially among older adults who have trouble obtaining affordable, nutritious meals. Through his eyes, Gillespie highlights some of the socioeconomic disparities and lower life expectancy among older adults in the poorer parts of the city.

It’s easy to say older adults should follow a healthy diet, like these recommendations from the National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Workshop, “Providing Healthy Foods as We Age,” stressed the importance of adequate diet in later years: “Years of research have demonstrated that diet quality has a huge effect on physical condition, cognitive condition, bone health, eye health, vascular function, and the immune system.”

But when you’re poor and living on disability, with multiple chronic conditions, this is not so easy to do. In Louisville, Gillespie reports that one in eight older adults are food insecure. The non-profit DoSomething.org estimates that nationally, 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, defined as “geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options (aka. fresh fruits and veggies) is limited or nonexistent because grocery stores are too far away. “

Many times, you just have to eat whatever you can get, even if you don’t like it very much, as Clay told Gillespie. Lack of local options to purchase food and conditions that hinder older people from trekking to stores that accept food stamps means people may go hungry, or subsist on fast-food that tends to be cheaper and more abundant in poor neighborhoods, the story explained.

When you find a person like Clay to share his story, maintaining professional distance can be challenging, as Gillespie explained in this How I Did It for AHCJ. Clay wanted a McDonald’s meal in exchange for talking. And while Gillespie was empathetic, she also knew she had to say no.

However, she later learned she was able help after all. After her piece aired in late January, Gillespie was contacted by a nonprofit who wanted to connect with Clay and offer assistance. He now receives a box of healthy, nutritious food he can prepare at home every month. As Gillespie found out, journalists can make a difference — sometimes one story at a time.

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