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. Sharon wondered if her mom had lost weight since she saw her last week. Yes, she decided, she’s getting even thinner.
“Please eat a little, Mom,” Sharon pleaded. “You never eat 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? 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. To carry out basic cellular processes like nerve signaling in the brain, the body requires energy from food. This energy is measured in units called “calories.” When a person is growing, such as during adolescence, their calorie requirement skyrockets. 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.
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. To help you identify a potential cause for your loved one’s situation, here are five reasons why seniors may not eat enough nutrient-rich foods—and how you can help them improve their intake to avoid malnutrition.
- 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.
To avoid this situation, make sure a senior loved one 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.
- 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 the senior family member 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 the loved one’s 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.
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.
- 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. 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 and share them with your loved one. You also can hire a professional caregiver specifically to assist with meal preparation.
- Loneliness due to eating alone
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. And don’t forget to take the Sunday Dinner Pledge®, designed to bring the whole family together for a sit-down meal every weekend.
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.