Older persons can be divided into four groups based on their emotional experience of mealtimes. That is the conclusion of scientists from Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research on the basis of research carried out by members of the senior test panel SenTo. The study, which was published in Appetite in September, offers product developers and marketers tools for better adapting their products to meet the differing needs and wants of the growing population of older persons.
Wageningen researchers classified older persons on the basis of the emotion words they associate with their mealtimes. The most important variables are the positive or negative valuation (such as enjoyable, happy, guilty, or disgusting) and the degree of excitement and activity (adventurous, calm) that the participants felt in connection with their mealtimes. 'Previous research into the eating habits of elderly people paid very little attention to emotions, despite the fact that the emotional aspect seems to become more important as people age,' says Louise den Uijl, a PhD in the Consumer Science & Health group.
In order to be able to easily distinguish the groups from one another, the scientists created a fictional character for each group representing a typical member of that group. For instance, Ms Smith represented the largest group, the '’pleasurable averages,' in which approximately 50% of participants were classified. Ms Smith has only moderate emotions towards her mealtimes. She thinks that health and taste are important and she tries new things once in a while, but she is not looking for culinary surprises.
The 'adventurous arousal,' Mr Hunter, represents 25% of the participants. He enjoys his meals and looks forward to seeing new things on his plate. The 'convivial indulger,' Ms Rose, representing approximately 12.5% of the participants,. She places greater value on the people she eats with than on special treats. The 'indifferent restrictive,' Mr Sadler, representing approximately 12.5% of the participants, is not very interested in what he eats. He associates his mealtimes with negative emotions, and as a result he runs the greatest risk of becoming malnourished.
Living independently for longer
The population of older persons in society will increase in number and diversity in the coming years throughout the world. However, the range of foods available to them does not have much relation to their needs and wants. The expectation is that products that meet the needs of the various groups of older persons, in combination with good communication, could result in better intake of nutrients among this population. In the long term, that could help older people to live independently for longer, according to the Wageningen researchers.
Questionnaires through the SenTo panel
All 392 participants in the study are also members of the SenTo panel (Senioren voor de Toekomst, 'seniors for the future'). This test panel, an initiative of Wageningen UR, consists of people above the age of 55, who live independently, can work with a computer and go online, do their own grocery shopping, and speak fluent Dutch. For this study, the average age of the participants was 65.8 years. The ratio of male participants to female participants was 40% to 60%. The participants filled in three online questionnaires about the emotions they experienced when eating meals and snacks, the function that they attributed to meals, and their attitudes towards health and taste.
The results of the study are described in the paper 'It is not just a meal, it is an emotional experience: A segmentation of older persons based on the emotions that they associate with mealtimes' (L.C. den Uijl et al.), published in Appetite.