Resources for Family Caregivers of Older Adults
15 Actions to Prevent Malnutrition When Seniors Don’t Want to Eat

15 Actions to Prevent Malnutrition When Seniors Don’t Want to Eat

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Many seniors are not getting enough to eat as they age, no matter whether they live on their own, with family or in a senior living facility.

Their limited intake of food, no matter what the reason, means they are not meeting their nutritional needs.

Undernutrition leads to poor health and worse events, such as muscle loss and falling.

Does this sound like your senior loved one?

Inadequate nutrition is becoming a very real concern for many family caregivers.

The rise of undernutrition in this country among our older adults is alarming. We can — and must — do something to help prevent it!

Overnutrition or obesity is also a problem of poor nutrition for seniors because it can negatively impact chronic medical condition management. The numbers of seniors experiencing poor nutrition is growing rapidly.

Malnutrition Facts

Recent research shows just how pervasive poor nutrition is among our elders.

  • 715,000 people over 65 are underweight (1 in 3 are overweight)
  • 9 million older adults can’t afford healthy foods and face the threat of hunger
  • 1 in 4 seniors skip or cut back what they eat due to food insecurity
  • 3 out of 5 seniors who qualify for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) don’t participate

Warning Signs of Malnutrition

Family caregivers may not realize that their seniors are not eating right because they bring them food or they get meals delivered.

However, senior loved ones may be choosing not to eat the most nutritious foods in the appropriate quantities to maintain their health.

There are signs that might help you identify the need to take action to keep them healthy.

  1. Undesired weight loss
  2. Loss of appetite
  3. Fatigue
  4. Muscle loss and weakness
  5. More frequent illness and infection

Find Out Why They’re Not Eating

Seniors who live alone are at increased risk because there is no one to observe their eating habits. Seniors, no matter where they reside, are at risk for poor nutrition as they age.

Living in a facility where the food isn’t ‘homemade,’ doesn’t taste the way they remember, or isn’t seasoned to their preferences often creates a situation in which eating becomes a problem.

They may tell you they are eating fine but may be throwing the food away unbeknownst to you.

They be unable physically to prepare their own meals and so they just eat convenience items like snack cakes or cans of soup, rarely getting a balanced, hot meal.

They may be experiencing difficulty chewing and swallowing, which restricts certain types of nutritious foods like meats or protein sources.

Missing teeth, poor dentition, mouth pain, ill-fitting dentures or refusal to wear dentures to eat can all impact their eating.

When seniors cough, choke, or have a fear of choking, it can keep them from eating certain foods, thereby limiting nutrients.

They may be unable to afford more nutritious foods such as protein, fresh fruits and vegetables and so are picking what seems to them to be cheaper foods which have fewer nutrients.

Perhaps they don’t grocery shop as often as they may need because they are having more trouble driving, walking or carrying their purchases.

They may need more help with their groceries or cooking foods.

Multiple medications can leave a bad taste in their mouth which could cause them to feel that nothing tastes right.

Sometimes they have a notion their doctor, once upon a time, told them to avoid fat or something else and they are now afraid to eat those foods that may really be nourishing for them.

Sometimes seniors simply are lonely and don’t want to eat their meals alone. Depression can lead to poor intake too.

Poor appetite that may be related to a physical condition or medical problem can stop seniors from eating.

Tips for Caregivers to Prevent Malnutrition

Once we think there may be a problem for our senior loved one, there are a number of things family caregivers can do to help them overcome poor eating.

Connect them with nutritious foods:

  • Encourage them to visit a senior center for both healthy meals and socialization to prevent isolation and loneliness.
  • Order home delivered meals, connect with a grocery delivery service, or order groceries online for them.
  • Provide modifications in their kitchen or with their utensils for them to make preparing their own meals easier.
  • Help them make more nutritious, nutrient dense food choices and avoid eating foods that don’t supply necessary nutrition.
  • Seek out a registered dietitian to help them make the best food choices.
  • Help them get to the grocery store and farmer’s market to buy healthy foods.
  • Check their eligibility for SNAP benefits and help them participate if qualified.
  • Hire a home helper who can cook or shop for them and sit with them during meals.
  • If they are in a facility, talk with the staff and join them for some meals to see for yourself what is happening.

Evaluate their health:

  • Get their teeth checked regularly by a dentist to rule out mouth pain or difficulty chewing.
  • Have their swallowing evaluated by a speech therapist and, if appropriate, learn interventions to improve swallowing.
  • Get a medical check up and talk about appetite, weight, supplementation, medication interactions, and other potential causes of of their poor nutrition.
  • Encourage them to participate in physical activity if they are overweight.
  • Discuss their mental health to learn if they may be depressed or lonely? Do they need someone to eat with them so they aren’t always alone?
  • Review their medication list with the pharmacist and doctor to check for side effects that interfere with good intake.

Take Action to Help

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, watch what and how they eat, look into their refrigerator or pantry, connect them with community resources, and advocate for their needs.

It is much better to be proactive than to regret not taking action since malnutrition can lead to undesirable consequences for your senior loved one.


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