6. april 2017

Judith Kyst: We are gathering and sharing our knowledge about the good life in old age

Collaboration on the good life in old age

The Department of Food Science, together with two other departments at the University of Copenhagen, has joined forces with the Food Culture Association (Madkulturen) in a new research centre, Centre for Good Older Lives. We have interviewed the director of the Food Culture Association, Judith Kyst, about how she views the centre’s tasks.

Director at the Food Culture Association (Madkulturen), Judith Kyst.

The Centre for Good Older Lives is researching how older people can maintain functional capacity and a good quality of life for as long as possible through good meals, exercise and meaningful relationships, for the benefit of both the economy and the individual.

What kind of organisation is the Food Culture Association (Madkulturen)?

Basically, the Food Culture Association (Madkulturen) is an independent organisation established by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark to reinforce the food agenda as well as to focus on core areas of the ministry. There has been a lot of focus on diet and nutrition, but our job is also to create spearhead initiatives with partners/stakeholders of the ministry. There are certainly plenty of challenges to address when it comes to food and meals. For example, we find ourselves in a society where a greater proportion of the population is ageing , while municipalities and regions are experiencing increasing budget strain – and this is where our collaboration with the University of Copenhagen at the research centre Vitalization: Centre for Good Older Lives comes into the picture.

What is your approach to food and meals for the elderly?

Our approach is that there is a caricatured debate and a strong critique of the effort, but that a lot of good things are happening. There are many good initiatives, many talented people and a lot of good will. But we need to document the best solutions and we must have evidence for what works and what does not. Then we must be better at sharing the best solutions, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in each and every municipality. The uniqueness of the collaboration between us and the three departments at the University of Copenhagen is that together we can achieve a much more holistic approach to how food and meals are linked to functional capacity, happiness and quality of life for elderly people. We cover the social aspects, physical activity, production and arrangement of the food, the social economy, implementation and dissemination.

The meal holds enormous cultural potential in relation to relationships and communities. If you have a single elderly person with a poor appetite, you can ask yourself whether this is because they lack an appetite, whether it is because the food service in the municipality is not working or whether it is because he or she is eating alone. The effect the situation around the meal can have on what we eat and the functional capacity of the elderly is not sufficiently documented, at least not in relation to the social aspect. There is more documentation if we only look at the nutritional aspects.

How do you view the elderly and the economy in relation to food and meals?

The financial pressure on public budgets and the increasing number of elderly people means that we think about food and meals in new ways. We need to feed more with less, which is why we also need to do more research into how to avoid food waste. At the community level, we need to restructure our diet, which should be greener and have less meat in it, but what does that mean for the elderly who need a higher nutrient density? We also need to look at that. So there are a great many tasks where a research centre like Vitalization can play a major role in the development we will see in the elderly sectors in the coming years. These tasks are, among other things, a reflection of the economy setting some limitations.

Why is one plus one more than two when the Food Culture Association (Madkulturen) and the university join forces in this new research centre?

The Food Culture Association works on a very practical level. We are currently working closely with the municipalities and other partners and want the initiatives we are helping to implement to function optimally. Therefore they must be supported by research and our task is to be the extended arm of the university that ensures that there will be a scaling of the good solutions we identify and that the research in general is put into play for the benefit of the good life in old age.

You once said that if we had researched food and meals as much as we have researched aerospace, we would be in a very different place. What do you mean by that?

Food and meals have, so far, been researched with a quite narrow approach. We have good basic research for some of these areas, but we have not been able to tie our knowledge together and we know from the White Paper “Taste – Good, Nutritious Meals for All Older People” (Smag – skønne måltider til alle gamle), which the Food Culture Association has written with the university, that there are also large gaps in our knowledge.

Where do you see the potential barriers for the collaboration between the Food Culture Association and the university?

We come from different worlds and this is a great advantage. We at the Food Culture Association don’t interfere with the research itself. We do, however, play a major role in the dissemination of the research. But it is clear that coming from different worlds can create some challenges and here we must build bridges and develop an understanding of the different environments that we each represent and also create a common language. We have already come a long way with this. This is done through the research and collaboration meetings we have and through dialogue and the exchange of experiences. I am not worried about it, because when we have to get down to work it is really this diversity that is a huge advantage. We need the research to take the last step and we in the Food Culture Association can help to make that happen.