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6 Reasons Why Older Adults May Not Eat Enough (Canada)

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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 Senior Care® 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 flavour, 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 flavours 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 flavourings 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 Senior Care 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 flavourings 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 Senior Care 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 flavourings 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 11, 2020

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