Alice O’Connor and Lois Levin, registered dietitians at Baystate Medical Center, say seniors are at a distinct risk for developing foodborne illnesses.
Food poisoning happens if food contaminated with certain types of bacteria is eaten. Symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. This can occur as soon as 30 minutes or as long as five or more days after eating a contaminated food. Symptoms can last for a day or two or up to a week to 10 days. If food poisoning is suspected and symptoms do not improve after two or three days, or if stools contain blood, seek medical attention.
Older people are more at risk for developing a foodborne illness for several reasons. As people age, physiological changes diminish our five senses and the immune system becomes weaker. Health problems and medications can also affect the immune system. This makes it more difficult to fight off harmful bacteria when contaminated food is eaten. Age-related depression or loneliness can affect one’s desire to make an effort to invest in healthy eating practices. Additionally, many seniors have outdated and potentially dangerous food handling techniques.

Dawn Chapman, a registered nurse at the Baystate Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice, noted some problems their nurses have encountered when visiting patients include homes stocked with outdated foods, spoiled foods in the refrigerator, and improper cooking techniques. Another problem is that seniors sometimes forget when they have left a pot on the stove, which is a fire risk. She noted that some of her clients at home enlist the help of family, friends and neighbors in meal planning and preparation.
Many steps can be taken to avoid contaminating food with bacteria and to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses or dangerous cooking situations. First, ensure proper storage, handling and cooking of foods. This means refrigerating cold foods below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or freezing below 0 degrees Fahrenheit as soon as possible, keeping hot foods above 140 degrees Fahrenheit and reheating foods to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooked or perishable foods should not be left out for more than two hours at room temperature. Foods should also be cooked thoroughly. Eggs should be cooked so that the yolks are hard and ground meat should be cooked until no signs of pink remain. You should never eat a hamburger that is still pink inside. Undercooked hamburger can contain the E. Coli bacteria, which can cause health problems such as kidney failure, intestinal bleeding, anemia and death. Purchase an instant easy-to-read thermometer to make sure foods are a safe temperature. The thermometer should be washed in warm soapy water after each use.
Proper storage of food is also essential. Cook or freeze raw meat or poultry one to two days after purchase. Store cooked meat or poultry in the refrigerator for no more than 2-4 days. Throw away any foods with mold on them or those that look or smell strange. Divide hot cooked foods into smaller portions and put into shallow containers before refrigerating them. If you’re only cooking for one or two, put the leftover cooked food into single serving size containers and freeze them for another meal.
Always wash your hands with warm soapy water before a meal, before and after handling food, after handling pets and after visiting the restroom. Consider using an instant hand sanitizer if you will not be near a sink. Separate cutting boards and utensils should be used for raw meat, cooked meat and produce. Thaw frozen foods on a plate in the refrigerator or in a microwave according to the manufacturer’s directions. Never thaw frozen foods on the counter. Visually inspect food before preparing or eating it. When in doubt about a food’s safety, throw it out. Using a black magic marker to date all opened jars, cans or boxes and cooked foods can help you remember when the food was last used. Also check expiration dates on packages.
Clean all dishes, pots, pans, and countertops with soap and rinse with hot water after use. Don’t forget to wash stove tops, toaster ovens and microwaves after use to keep them clean and prevent the chance of fire. Keep a box of baking soda near the stove or invest in a fire extinguisher (and make sure you know how to use it). Also, using a timer with a loud buzzer or bell can lessen the chance of forgetting items on the stove.
By properly cooking and storing food and having safe cooking practices in the kitchen, you can safeguard your health and well-being..