Hospital's novel mealtime project helping older patients

Helen Roberts

Teams of mealtime assistants are helping older people to eat well during their time on the wards at Southampton’s university hospitals as part of a radical nutrition project.

Volunteers visit patients on the medicine for older people unit at Southampton General Hospital during mealtimes and encourage them to eat and drink, help cut up their food and ensure the right cutlery is available.

The innovative project, which is the first to be assessed by an expert clinical team, sees groups of four to five mealtime assistants help at lunchtimes on the wards, supported by therapists, dietitians and research nurses.

Although joining as members of the voluntary services team at Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust, the assistants receive specific training from the speech and language therapy and dietetics teams to help them with communication skills and nutritional knowledge.

Dr Helen Roberts, a consultant in geriatric medicine and the project lead, said: “Although the general idea is not new following prominent Age UK campaigns highlighting concerns about unwell older people not eating enough in hospital, to date, no-one has evaluated mealtime assistance in terms of feasibility of recruiting and retaining volunteers and whether it is an effective and efficient initiative in increasing the nutritional intake of older people.

“This is a very exciting and positive project which may well change the face of mealtimes in hospital for older people across the UK and we look forward to assessing the impact it has on our patients’ wellbeing.”

Kim Sutton, voluntary services manager, added: “Volunteers play a vital part in helping to support our hospitals on a daily basis and, through this project, people with a passion for helping others are able to take up an interesting and active role with direct patient interaction.”

The project is being run through the nutrition, diet and lifestyle biomedical research unit, which is a joint initiative between the Trust and the University of Southampton funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

Anyone interested in becoming a mealtime assistant can find out more by contacting the voluntary services team on 023 8120 4688 or by emailing

Posted on Tuesday 5 July 2011