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Nutritional Risks: The Warning Signs

More than three-fourths of seniors who live alone, eat alone most of the time.

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Elderly Nutritional Health Faces Multiple Challenges.

You've just arrived at your elderly mom's house and, once again, the fridge is empty and your mother is eating toast for dinner. "Why cook," she asks, "when I'm all alone?" Or, perhaps, Dad has quit eating altogether since Mom – the gourmet cook in the family – died last year.

Family caregivers know how difficult it can be to ensure older adults are eating properly. After all, seniors often face multiple challenges. Much can stand in the way of good nutrition and maintaining elderly health.

For instance, illnesses and diseases can dampen taste buds. Seniors on multiple medications or recovering from an illness may lose interest in eating. The conditions of aging sometimes make shopping and preparing food difficult. And then there's loneliness. All of these issues can mean your mom or dad could fail to thrive like they should.

Two of five seniors who live alone (44 percent) have at least four warning signs of poor nutritional health such as eating alone, taking multiple medications and having an illness, according to research conducted for the Home Instead® network.

"Nutrition is certainly a key factor to an individual's overall health and well-being," said Sandy Markwood, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a). "If someone is at risk, their health is impacted. When you see the warning signs, it's indicative of a larger risk. Combine that with loneliness and you're looking at increased mental and physical health risks."

Following, from the Home Instead network's research and Markwood, are warning indicators that a senior could be in trouble.

  1. The loneliness. Who wants to eat alone? Not only are seniors at more risk of poor nutrition, loneliness can lead to depression, which could make problems worse. More than three-fourths (76 percent) of seniors who live alone eat alone most of the time, according to Home Instead network research.
    Suggestion: Try to make sure your older loved one has companionship at home or in a congregate meal site.
  2. The multiple meds. Nearly three-fourths (71 percent) of seniors take three or more different medications a day, according to this research.
    Suggestion: Talk to your senior's health care team about how medications might be impacting your older adult's appetite and discuss with them what to do about it.
  3. The lack of healthy staples. For a number of reasons, important staples for a good diet are not always found in a senior's kitchen. Nearly half (46 percent) of seniors who live alone consume few fruits, vegetables or milk products, this research revealed.
    Suggestion: In season, why not find an affordable, local farmer's market? Talk with your older loved one about their favorite recipes – or yours – that incorporate healthy products.
  4. The illness. Many older adults are struggling with health conditions. Some don't feel like eating as a result. Others – 31 percent in the Home Instead research – say that an illness or condition has forced them to change the food they eat.
    Suggestion: Discovering favorite recipes from the recipe box and making mealtime a social event may help.
  5. The physical problems. 25 percent of seniors who live alone encounter issues getting to a grocery store, causing more stress on shopping or cooking for themselves.
    Suggestion: Your local Area Agency on Aging office has staff to help and your local Home Instead office can arrange for a CAREGiverSM. Try, also, to tap into neighbors and compassionate friends. If you know of older adults who live alone, cook extra at mealtimes and take it to them.
  6. That smelly fridge. Check out expiration dates of food in the refrigerator when you're visiting a loved one. Have you noticed an increase in spoiled food? Remember to check the freezer for outdated frozen items or foods that have not been packaged appropriately.
    Suggestion: Help a senior by packaging food in small portions and labeling in big letters with the date.
  7. The suspicious grocery list. If you go to the store for Mom, and the list is mostly sweets, then she may be headed in the wrong direction with her diet.
    Suggestion: Help her put together a grocery list, reminding her of all the wonderful foods she used to cook for you. Make it a happy time of memories. Why not buy the ingredients and make that recipe together?
  8. Those important details. When you're visiting a senior, check out things like skin tone – it should be healthy looking and well-hydrated – as well as any weight fluctuations. A loss or gain of 10 pounds in six months could be a sign of trouble.
    Suggestion: A visit to the doctor can help ensure your senior is healthy.
  9. The empty cupboard. An emergency could trap a loved one home for days.
    Suggestion: Prepare by stocking back-up food, water and high-nutrition products such as Ensure® in case a trip to the store isn't possible.
  10. The support. Isolation is one of the biggest threats to an older adult. Encourage your loved one to invite friends to dinner. If you can't be there, develop a schedule of friends and neighbors who can stop by for lunch or dinner. Or call your local Home Instead office to enlist the services of a professional CAREGiver.

Download this list, Nutritional Risks: The Warning Signs (PDF 340 KB)

For more information about the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, visit

For more information about your local Home Instead office, visit

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Last revised: June 21, 2011

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. February 27, 2021 at 11:11 pm | Posted by julie

    Very helpful information. Loved this. I'm 82 and live alone but doing well. So far I'm doing good except for laundry. I often get very tired so I have to really plan when I will do the laundry. I have food delivered form the grocery stores. I pay my bills on line. I still drive and love my life but there is always room for improvements.


  2. August 30, 2014 at 10:04 am | Posted by joy golliver

    Loneliness. Its because adult children are too busy to visit and provide. Seniors need them. Can't talk to their doctors. HIPA laws. These suggestions aRe helping the boomer child to keep a distance instead of staying for lunch. Inviting them to be involved with the family. Etc


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