Dr. Nevin Cohen, Professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, along with CUNY SPH doctoral student, Kristen Cribbs, employed a Social Practice Theory (SPT) framework to explore the food practices of an under-researched, highly vulnerable segment of the older adult population – lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) seniors. Their findings were published in the Journal of Aging Studies.
As the population of the United States shifts towards an older demographic, malnutrition among older adults is recognized as a significant public health concern. LGBT seniors are a particularly vulnerable population as they tend to have poorer health outcomes than heterosexual seniors, including higher rates of diet-related chronic disease and disability, and psychological distress, anxiety, and depression — conditions that adversely affect nutrition.
Dr. Cohen and Ms. Cribbs conducted four focus groups with 31 older adult clients and volunteers at Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), a national organization that provides health and social services, including nutrition support and policy advocacy. The focus groups were conducted with older LGBT adults to uncover and learn about the elements (meanings, materials, and competences) that constitute their at-home food practices. For the focus groups, the researchers sought older adults who procure, prepare, and eat meals at home regularly, as well as volunteers and caregivers involved in the food practices of SAGE clients.
The focus groups asked questions that inquired about factors inhibiting and enabling at-home food preparation and eating, including: the meanings attributed to shopping, cooking, and eating; material and physical constraints and opportunities; and competences related to meal preparation.
Analysis of the focus groups showed that the participants attributed various meanings to food preparation at home. Some viewed it as a simple, thrifty, efficient, and healthy way to feed themselves, ascribing these actions to maintaining independence and control over their daily lives. For others, the ritual of food preparation held more emotional and abstract meanings such as a means to establish and maintain connections to others, a creative outlet, a therapeutic exercise, or simply to reminisce.
Participants also discussed the role of material elements in facilitating, impeding, or shaping their food procurement and preparation practices. Materials ranged from the availability of food retailers, to kitchens and appliances, to financial resources.
Participants discussed various dimensions of competence, including functional competence (physical or cognitive ability to shop and cook), cooking skills, know-how to search for the best deals or quality food, an understanding of healthy eating, and knowledge of food-related programs and services. The mix of competences influenced the types of food preparation practices the SAGE clients engaged in.
The focus group findings illustrate that food practices are not merely expressions of individuals’ choices or habits. Rather, they are entities composed of meanings, influenced by material elements, and by competences. This study highlights that food practices are not immutable, but can shift over time to adapt to changing life circumstances. The findings suggest opportunities to change the elements of food practices to keep pace with the challenges of aging in order to enhance the nutritional health and well being of older adults.
Dr. Cohen explains, “Everyday food practices have large effects on health, yet are so mundane that researchers and policymakers often overlook them. This paper illustrates how a social practice framework, by shifting attention from individual behaviors to everyday food practices, provides insights often missed in conventional approaches to improving nutrition. It examines the food practices of older LGBT adults, revealing strategies used to shop, cook, eat and engage in related activities that support healthy aging, and suggests how social practice theory can be applied to program and policy design.”
Cohen N, Cribbs K. The everyday food practices of community-dwelling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) older adults. Journal of Aging Studies. 2017;41:75-83. doi:10.1016/j.jaging.2017.05.002.