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How to Help Seniors Maintain Adequate Levels of 6 Key Nutrients

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When Julia, age 82, went to visit her doctor for an annual physical, she was surprised to hear she wasn’t eating well enough. In fact, she learned she was deficient in a few key vitamins.

“I try to eat a balanced diet with protein and veggies and all that,” she told her Home Instead® CAREGiver℠, “but the doctor said I have to take calcium and Vitamin D now. I don’t really understand why. I’ve survived this long without having to take vitamin pills!”

Julia didn’t understand that her nutrition needs changed as she aged. In fact, many seniors may be unaware of how they should modify their diet in order to maintain good health. Beyond the physiological changes that can cause nutrient requirements to change, seniors also may encounter other challenges that make getting adequate nutrition tricky. Poor dentition, medical conditions and mobility issues that make shopping for fresh foods difficult or nearly impossible can cause a senior to become deficient in key nutrients.

As a senior care professional, you can help your clients maintain good nutrition by suggesting a few age-appropriate dietary adjustments to include six key nutrients.

1. Calcium

Everyone begins losing bone mass to some degree as they age, but postmenopausal women experience bone wasting at a faster rate than men. Because of this natural decrease in bone mass due to aging, seniors likely need to consume higher levels of calcium to avoid osteoporosis.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended daily allowance of calcium for women over age 50 and men over age 70 is 1,200mg per day. Seniors can consume this amount through food by eating breakfast cereals fortified with calcium or by consuming several servings per day of dairy products like fat-free milk or yogurt. In older adults who have developed lactose intolerance or who simply do not have the appetite to eat three to four servings per day of calcium-rich foods, taking a calcium supplement can supply this vital nutrient if their doctor advises it.

2. Vitamin D

Like calcium, seniors need plenty of Vitamin D to keep their bones healthy. While Vitamin D requirements don’t increase with age, many older adults do not get enough of this essential vitamin. You can suggest your senior clients have their Vitamin D level checked during their annual physical. If it is low, their doctor may recommend a supplement because it is very difficult to get adequate amounts of Vitamin D from food.

3. Sodium

Many seniors need to reduce their sodium intake due to a medical condition like high blood pressure or congestive heart failure. Some research suggests even those who do not have a cardiovascular issue can benefit from reducing sodium with age. Generally, healthy adults do not require more than 1,500mg of sodium per day--less than a teaspoonful--and healthy seniors probably should aim for even less. As a general rule, encourage seniors to buy salt-free foods whenever possible and to avoid adding table salt to what they cook.

4. Vitamin B12

People over age 50 face a higher risk of being deficient in Vitamin B12, possibly due in part to decreased nutrient absorption in the intestines caused by aging. Vitamin B12 is vital for proper nervous system function, and a deficiency can cause dementia-like symptoms. Good food sources of Vitamin B12 include fortified breakfast cereals, beef liver and clams. Because there are no good plant sources of B12, seniors who follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle may want to consider taking a multivitamin supplement that contains B12.

5. Fiber

Activity in the gut naturally slows down as a person ages, and this sluggishness can be exacerbated by certain medications, such as narcotic pain relievers. To avoid constipation, seniors might pay attention to consuming enough dietary fiber from sources such as whole beans, raw vegetables and whole fruits. If a senior can’t chew fiber-rich foods easily, recommend consulting his or her doctor to find out if a powdered fiber supplement dissolved in water would be appropriate.

6. Water

Aging can dull a person’s sense of thirst. If a senior doesn’t feel thirsty very often, he or she may not drink enough water. Adequate hydration helps the body system function well, and it promotes the absorption of medications and vitamins for maximum benefit. Older adults can track their water intake for a day or two to learn how much they’re actually consuming, then adjust as necessary. The Institute of Medicine recommends healthy men drink about three liters of water a day, and women should get just over two liters per day. However, if a senior has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure or other fluid-restricting diseases, he or she should closely follow the doctor’s instructions for fluid restriction.

Natural aging can alter a person’s nutritional requirements, as can medical conditions like high blood pressure or mobility issues that make grocery shopping difficult. By helping seniors understand their changing nutritional needs, you enable them to avoid deficiencies in six vital nutrients. If a senior needs extra support with grocery shopping and meal preparation to maintain a healthy diet, consider recommending a home care agency like Home Instead® to provide personalized nutrition care services.

Last revised: December 7, 2016

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. March 25, 2020 at 8:26 pm | Posted by Phyllis J Leone

    Thank you for the additional knowledge in this article. Found it informative. Have encourage hydration with most of clients, however surprised to learn that there is a possible or probable dulling of their sense of thirst. Knew of the probable dulling of taste and appetite but not sense of thirst. Again,Thank you


  2. December 30, 2016 at 6:01 pm | Posted by Marcia J Corbett

    Thanks so much for this information! It was very helpful and I will use it with my clients and elderly dad. Happy New Year!


  3. December 29, 2016 at 11:37 pm | Posted by Dorothy Biondi

    I found out I had an iron deficiency recently. No other problems like Vitamin D. Is this unusual/


    • January 3, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Posted by Home Instead

      Hi Dorothy, iron deficiencies can have a number of causes, but it's best to check with your doctor on the best way to bring up your iron levels.


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