Nicola Ann Plastow, Anita Atwal, Mary Gilhooly; Food Activities and Identity Maintenance Among Community-Living Older Adults: A Grounded Theory Study. Am J Occup Ther 2015;69(6):6906260010. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2015.016139
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OBJECTIVE. Engaging in food activities and maintaining identity are each important for productive aging. This study explored the role of food activities in identity maintenance among community-living older adults.
METHOD. We used a grounded theory approach to analyze data collected in semistructured interviews with 39 predominantly White, British older adults living in West London.
RESULTS. Two lifelong food identities—“food lover” and “nonfoodie”—were maintained in the processes of participation and maintenance and threat and compensation. The process change in meaning and identity explained the development of a third food identity—“not bothered”—when participants experienced being alone at the table, deteriorating health, and worry about the cost of food.
CONCLUSION. Food activities that are a pleasurable and important part of daily life contribute to the maintenance of important identities and mental well-being in older adults.
None of the identified studies intended to investigate whether and how food activities contribute to identity maintenance in later life.
The unique experience of older adults was not made clear because much of the research included both younger and older adult participants in the same sample.
Ten qualitative studies found moderate evidence that changes in health change food activities and, consequently, threaten identity.
Little evidence was found for the impact of other life experiences and events, such as widowhood or retirement, on the relationship between food activities and identity maintenance.
You do keep a routine. But on the other hand, it doesn’t matter if you break it because there’s nobody else there who’s expecting a meal. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, I don’t feel hungry. I won’t bother about doing anything at the moment,” . . . whereas if there’s somebody else who’s expecting a meal, you attempt . . . to get the meal anyway.
Up until quite recently I thought I could eat nails. . . . I could eat anything. . . . I should have attached more importance to it years ago. . . . I’m better than I used to be, I suppose. I have to be. But I’m still not brilliant.
Assessment of feeding and eating performance should include questions about the importance and meaning of food activities to clients.
Participation in meaningful activities and compensation for changes in these activities maintain lifelong identities. A conversation with older adults about their most important daily activities, why they love or enjoy them, and what they do to make sure participation is consistent with the way they view themselves is a good starting point for an assessment of occupational identities.
Older adults’ food identity may have an effect on the success of occupational therapy interventions. Finding ways to compensate for changes in food lovers’ food activities while still maintaining the meaning of food activities should be the focus of occupational therapy intervention for these older adults. For nonfoodies, finding ways to spend as little time as possible on food activities while still achieving optimum nutritional health should be the focus of occupational therapy intervention. Interventions with not-bothered older adults may focus on either restoring meaningful participation in food activities or finding new meaningful activities that maintain important identities.
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