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Clean Refrigerator Important to Senior Health

Senior standing next to her refrigerator
Improper storage of food is one sign that Mom could need a little extra help at home.

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Food poisoning can leave vulnerable older adults who may be weak from the effects of illness or aging. Make sure that the senior in your life is practicing proper food handling and has the assistance at home to stay safe and healthy.

Q. My 80-year-old mother never cleans out the refrigerator and I can’t help because I live too far away. I’m very concerned about her health. My husband thinks I’m worrying for no reason. Am I?

Food poisoning is a very real concern at any age, but seniors with weakened immune systems and other illnesses could be particularly vulnerable. There are more than 250 known food-borne diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, these diseases kill more than 5,000 people and make about 76 million people sick, sending 325,000 to the hospital. Luckily, most cases of food sickness are mild and last only a day or two.

Food or drinks contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites can make us sick. Bacteria cause most cases of food-related illness, like E. coli infection, salmonella, and botulism, according to AARP. And the refrigerator can be a breeding ground for some of these. That’s why proper storage of food is one important way to keep your mother healthy. Following, from AARP, are food storage tips that could benefit your mother:

  • Set the temperature in your refrigerator below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and use a refrigerator thermometer to check it.
  • Don't overpack your refrigerator. Cold air needs to circulate around food to keep it properly cooled.
  • If you're transporting food that spoils easily or eating it outside, pack it in ice.
  • Don't leave hot or cold food, including leftovers and groceries, unrefrigerated for more than two hours (one hour in hot weather). Any longer will give harmful bacteria a chance to grow. Store leftovers in shallow containers (two inches or less) for quicker cooling and to prevent bacteria buildup.

If you can’t get to your mom’s house regularly to help her, consider soliciting the help of a trusted neighbor or family friend. Your mother might be willing to allow someone she knows to help her clean the refrigerator.

Improper storage of food is one sign that Mom could need a little extra help at home. The local Home Instead® office can provide help around the house as well as assistance with meal preparation, shopping and errands. CAREGiversSM are screened, trained, bonded and insured. In encouraging your mom to hire a CAREGiver, explain to her that you are looking out for her health and welfare.

For more about food safety tips, visit

Last revised: September 22, 2011

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