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6 Reasons Why a Senior May Not Eat Enough

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Sharon watched with distress as her frail, 82-year-old mother used a fork to pick at the pot roast and potatoes on her plate. It looked like she hadn’t eaten more than three bites during dinner. But give her a plate of cookies and they would be gone in a day. Sharon wondered if her mom, who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, had lost weight since she saw her last week. Yes, she decided, she’s getting even thinner.

“Please eat a little of this healthy meal, Mom,” Sharon pleaded. “You never eat your meals anymore.”

Perhaps you can relate to Sharon’s concern. Many family caregivers express anxiety about the small amount of food an older loved one eats. But how can you tell if a senior relative really needs to eat more, or if they are eating the right foods? More importantly, how can you make sure an older adult is getting enough nutrition regardless of how little he or she eats?

First, it’s important to understand most seniors like Sharon’s mom simply may not need to eat as much as they used to, according to Home Instead® Gerontologist and Caregiver Advocate Lakelyn Hogan. But when a person gets older and less active, their calorie requirements go down. Thus, an older adult who lives a sedentary lifestyle does not require as many calories to satisfy the body’s energy needs. This reduced calorie need can lead to a natural decline in appetite, Hogan said.

A more important question is whether or not an older adult is eating a balanced diet to meet his or her nutritional needs. If your senior loved one eats a low volume of fresh vegetables and fruits, lean meats, whole grains and low-fat dairy products, then they might well be maintaining a good nutritional status even if they’re not eating a lot.

However, if your senior family member has symptoms of malnutrition like weight loss, poor wound healing or increasing frailty, then you might want to investigate her eating habits, Hogan noted. To help you identify a potential cause for your loved one’s situation, here are six reasons why seniors may not eat enough nutrient-rich foods—and how you can help them improve their intake to avoid malnutrition.

1. Problems chewing

It makes sense that you need good teeth to enjoy food. Ill-fitting dentures, cavities or gum disease can make it difficult or painful for a senior to chew food, so they stop eating. And seniors with a cognitive issue like dementia may not be able to tell you their mouth hurts. You might try these five tips to help a loved one with dementia eat.

To avoid this situation, make sure your mom gets regular dental checkups that include checking the fit of dentures. If a senior has a tender mouth in spite of not having dental problems, then try preparing soft recipes that are loaded with flavor, such as mashed potatoes topped with melted low-fat cheese and sour cream.

2. Medications interfering with sense of taste

A person’s sense of taste naturally declines with age, and many drugs can further reduce a person’s ability to discern the flavors of foods. Talk with your loved one to find out if they find eating unappealing because their sense of taste is “off.” If this is the case, you might consider speaking with a doctor to find out how to address the situation medically. In the meantime, help the senior identify wholesome foods that will deliver great nutrition even in small quantities. Think fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grain breads and pastas, and flavorings like fresh lemon juice to add a punch of taste to every bite. Learn more about how aging issues can impact sense of taste.

3. Depression

The life events that occur in older age, such as losing a spouse, can cause mild or serious depression. Depression or stress can suppress the appetite and lead to less eating and poor nutrition. If you think a senior loved one might be depressed, try asking them about it. Many people feel relieved to talk about their emotions, and once you open the door to this possibility then you can consult a doctor for help with the situation. Companionship, talk therapy, or medications may help to ease depression and get a senior back to eating normally.

4. Inability to cook

Even people who enjoyed cooking when they were younger may find it challenging to lift heavy pans, chop vegetables and perform other rigorous tasks required to prepare a meal. There is assistive technology for the kitchen that can make it easier and safer to cook meals. And if they are cooking for one, they may not find the effort to be worth it. You can help by offering to prep food in advance to make cooking easier. Take one afternoon a week to chop vegetables or meats and put them into easy-open containers for the senior to use later that week. Find nutritious, easy-to-prepare recipes online. You also can hire a professional caregiver specifically to assist with meal preparation. Home Instead CAREGivers℠, for example, are knowledgeable about meal planning, food prep and senior nutrition.

5. Food preferences

You may be trying to force a menu or food preferences on a loved one. Focus on what your loved one likes to eat rather than your idea of the perfect nutrition. Unless there are medical reasons for a specific diet, it’s important that they eat for pleasure and get enough calories. Make available a variety of reasonably healthful high-calorie choices. You might consider ways to increase these 6 key nutrients to assist with healthy aging. Season liberally with herbs and other flavorings to make foods more enticing. Avoid nagging. Realize that some older adults forget to eat because of memory problems caused by a form of dementia like Alzheimer’s disease.

6. Loneliness due to eating alone

Home Instead research shows lack of companionship is the biggest mealtime challenge for seniors. Dining alone can magnify loneliness and feelings of depression, which in turn can suppress appetite and lead to poor eating. You can help by spending mealtime with your loved one as often as possible or by telephoning around the lunch or dinner hour. Fortunately, there are many resources available on the web for anyone who is craving companionship at mealtime. Good nutrition contributes greatly to a senior’s quality of life, and eating only small quantities of food may, on its own, not be a sign of senior malnutrition. If you think a senior loved one doesn’t get enough calories, is losing weight or appears malnourished, then it is wise to seek ways to help. Once you identify the underlying reasons why an older adult isn’t eating well, then you can take the steps outlined above to help get him or her back on the path to wellness.

10 Tips to Help an Aging Loved One (with or without dementia) at Mealtime

  • Focus on what the older adult likes to eat rather than the idea of perfect nutrition. Unless there are medical reasons for a specific diet, it’s important that they eat for pleasure and get enough calories.
  • Serve micro meals throughout the day instead of the “big three.”
  • Serve plates of food to everyone at the table, rather than setting out food so that people can help themselves family-style.
  • Plate the food for the person with dementia so that it’s already at their place when seated.
  • Serve a plate with food already cut into bite-sized pieces.
  • Don’t put too much food on the plate; it can seem overwhelming.
  • Season liberally with herbs and other flavorings to make food more enticing.
  • Monitor the plate through the meal, so you can offer seconds (or different types of food) as needed; the person may not be able to ask.
  • Monitor that the person is indeed eating; you may need to remind him or her throughout the meal.
  • Serve finger foods such as sandwiches if manipulating silverware (getting fork to mouth, for instance) is becoming difficult.

Good nutrition contributes greatly to an older adult’s quality of life, and eating only small quantities of food may, on its own, not be a sign of senior malnutrition. If you think a senior loved one doesn’t get enough calories, is losing weight or appears malnourished, then it is wise to seek ways to help. Once you identify the underlying reasons why an older adult isn’t eating well, then you can take the steps outlined above to help get him or her back on the path to wellness.

For additional meal plan ideas and recipes, check out resources in the Sunday Dinner Pledge.

Last revised: March 3, 2020

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. October 23, 2020 at 1:22 pm | Posted by Just someone

    My issue is my 76-year-old mother is in total denial of everything that is going on with her. She's diabetic and now has high blood pressure. Thankfully no heart issues yet but her kidney level is 47 so that may be the next thing we deal with. She makes up things in her head when I tell her she can't have something. And she believes what she makes up in her head. For instance she has stage 2 hypertension. Her pressure this morning was 166/79. So I told her she can't eat the canned soups anymore. So what did she say? "I've always had high blood pressure even when I was a teenager". Well, no she hasn't. Then she tells me to buy her salt. I asked her what happened to the salt grinder I bought her two weeks ago? She tells me that's sea salt and I want regular white salt. I told her she can't have salt because she has high blood pressure. And then she tells me the same thing again" I've had high blood pressure since I was a kid. "I can have just a little bit." "I only use a little bit." "I only use it once in a while" She was flat out said the doctor told her she could have a little bit. Which is something she made up in her head. This is what she wanted me to add to her list today: Potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, vanilla ice cream, spaghetti, English muffins, watermelon, bread, packaged kielbasa, packaged coleslaw,--- all junk, sodium and carb laden foods. "But i only eat it once in a while" NO SHE DOESN'T. Because in two weeks it'll all be gone. But she actually believes herself when she says that. I'm At my wit's end


  2. December 11, 2019 at 10:29 pm | Posted by Lisa Hott

    I'm a care giver for a man with Alzheimer's 82 years old, eats only sweets, can't get him to eat solid food, and will not go to a doctor


  3. September 27, 2019 at 6:33 pm | Posted by val

    My husband is the same; I feed him a balanced meal which he hardly touches and then sits in his chair and eats junk food.


    • December 18, 2019 at 3:13 pm | Posted by Amie

      My father is on a low sodium diet. It was not easy to get him to switch from his life long bad habits, but I did it- we provide low sodium meals six days a week and we do family dinner on Sunday. With my mom's approval, I removed all high sodium food from the house (all processed meals, snack foods, soda, etc..) and replaced them with low sodium options. I cook low sodium versions of his favorites (easy to do) and often I cook with no salt at all so that my dad can use the salt shaker- in moderation- just like old times. It takes commitment but my parents are now eating only low-no sodium food. Again- it takes commitment- it won't happen over night. Commit and don't quit.


  4. September 23, 2019 at 2:08 pm | Posted by Angela

    I am having a hard time too. My friend asked me to move in as she ages in home. She is 88. She has never eaten much but now she is rail thin. She has two pots of food in the fridge from before I moved in and the food has gotten moldy and she will not let me throw it out. Or make her more food. I am not financially able to buy her food. I know she has money for food, but will not spend it. I don't know what to do.


  5. July 15, 2019 at 5:46 am | Posted by Mustafa Yacoob

    My grandmother won't listen to me and she doesn't eat properly because of some problems with chewing. This blog is really informative. please keep sharing!!


  6. March 13, 2019 at 5:05 am | Posted by Angie Skinner

    WWII FOREIGN AFFAIR SPOUSE MY GRANNY... LAID A HEAVY BURDEN UPON ME... HER NAMESAKE... IN HOME CARE GIVER OVERSEER HER LAST WILL... AND TESTAMENT But it was at her request I would not leave her very selfish and hidden agenda of sibling monetarily.. Leaving a large weighty burden. While executing her in home stay until her demise.... Yet my confidence in that which is done right... Caring out her heart's desire.... Recovering from the troubles encountered. I am confident for my granny knowledge I did the right thing. THANK GOD. I AM MENTALLY FREE. WORKING ON MY HEALTH AND MY FINANCIAL STATE OF BEING.


  7. March 13, 2019 at 4:56 am | Posted by Angie Skinner



  8. February 11, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Posted by Marilyn

    Thanks for the info Taking care of 97 years old man .For me aside from mention above about eating additional why they eat small amount is that less moving , I mean no enough exercise, just sleeping , watching tv , mostly in home.So far my client eat nutritious food that I cook . He’s getting stronger than the first time I came to be his caregiver . Hoping for more years to live ???


  9. November 22, 2017 at 10:34 pm | Posted by Judy McIvor

    My husband won't listen when I explain he needs protein. He'd rather eat junk food. He will snack on nuts.


    • January 18, 2018 at 5:45 pm | Posted by Joyce

      Mine isn't getting protein either. Nothing has any taste except mostly sweets. He's pretty much sleeping all day in the recliner by the window. He is drinking chocolate fudge Ensure. He enjoys it but only the chocolate....


      • April 4, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Posted by Cathy

        You are describing my 81 yr. old husband to a tee. He loves his chocolate and also drinks a chocolate protein drink. He sits in front of the TV most of the day and sleeps a lot. He dreads meal time. I try to give him fruits and vegetables every day. He has a difficult time chewing most meats. Any suggestions would be appreciated.


      • March 20, 2019 at 9:42 am | Posted by Irene

        If sweets are a preference, to add protein try using almond flour or adding peanut butter to a recipe. Smoothies are always an option too, you can use Greek yogurt and milk, or substitute another milk option.


  10. September 24, 2017 at 7:43 am | Posted by mia

    Pls. know that also one senior I know is afraid of getting gas/diarrhea which she gets when she eats too much.. I do not believed this was mentioned in the book.


  11. September 23, 2017 at 4:57 pm | Posted by Maria E. Macias

    What dose it mean when a 80 year old person has a hard time swoling there food like soup even solid food?


  12. September 23, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Posted by Mary

    My legally blind client wasn't eating much. I now cook and serve her a plate of food every night. She's eating so much better it makes me feel ? so good. And I'm not a chef. Simple foods is all it takes and being with her at dinner time.


  13. December 19, 2016 at 10:23 am | Posted by Jackie

    Thanks for explaining the possibilities of an elder person not wanting to eat. This is helping as far as the problem with my Mother. Should we make sure she eats something but not force her to eat. Thanks for the advice.


  14. December 14, 2016 at 11:00 am | Posted by Andrew W. Snyder CPA

    I had this problem with my 87 year old wife. Our main care giver and I have dealt with the problem by offering a variety of food and snacks to break up the monotony. For example, for breakfast, she has grapefruit, orange juice, scrambled eggs with bacon or sausage, or a waffle, or eggs with hash browns. For lunch she will have a fruit cup and yogurt with potato chips or pretzels for snacks. She will also have a mid afternoon smoothie of peanut butter, soy milk, honey, and protein powder. She eats a regular dinner and in the evening she will have a Glucerna shake. The care giver and I are always looking for new things to add to the variety. So far this has worked in maintaing weight and my wife's interest in eating.


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