Family caregivers visiting their senior loved ones enjoy bringing them something to eat, not only to show their love but also to encourage them to eat.
Many seniors begin to have diminished appetites — whether from boredom, lack of activity, or changes in their sensation of taste — making all foods taste unfamiliar.
When they are left to eat the food someone else makes for them, whether a family or paid caregiver or in a facility, they tend to eat less and less.
It doesn’t matter if they are home getting delivered meals from an organization, living in a facility that supplies their meals in a congregate dining area, or in their room, or trying to prepare their own convenience items at home. They aren’t getting all the nutrition they need.
For many that is a real problem that can affect their nutritional health, physical health, and even their mood.
Caregivers can help fill the gap!
When Aging Changes Nutritional Needs
Seniors nutritional needs change as they age and caregivers can help them meet their needs with a few interventions.
While aging often means fewer calories may be needed, all the nutrients are still in demand by their bodies and some are more essential than ever for bone health, heart health and brain health.
Here are some things that happen which can change what and how much your senior loved one eats:
- As they age, chronic diseases can impact their health and how and what they eat. They may be restricting their food intake based on what they have been told years ago about a particular disease, such as heart disease or diabetes, to the point that they are limiting the nutrients they include — many are over-restricting what they eat.
- Difficulty with their teeth and gums can affect what food choices they make. Meats are usually the first foods to go when chewing becomes a problem. Whether it is because of poor dentition, poorly fitting dentures, gum disease, mouth sores, dry mouth or missing teeth or due to cognitive loss, chewing nutrient rich foods can be difficult.
- Medications can result in increased nutritional needs or a change in eating. Some medications can inhibit their appetite or increase their appetite to the point of poor food choices out of convenience and speed. Some medications cause dry mouth. Some can cause whole groups of foods, such as leafy green vegetables, from being cut out of the diet.
- Intake of the nutrients of concern as people age are often under consumed (or poorly absorbed) including calcium, B vitamins, and protein.
- Aging skin is not as productive at producing Vitamin D to help keep bones strong. Added to a decrease in dairy intake, for those worried about lactose intolerance, a weakening of bones that lead to fractures can occur.
- Decreased ability to absorb specific nutrients like B12 due to gastric acid secretion and the effects of drugs, such as antacids and proton pump inhibitors (PPI), used to control stomach acid.
- Excessive alcohol intake can cause nutrients that are eaten not to be absorbed properly or the person to eat less, putting them at risk for malnutrition.
- Finances can also change what your senior feels comfortable buying when they grocery shop. Cheaper, less nutritious, foods may become staples instead of often more expensive fresh foods.
- Functional status can impact what seniors eat as they are less able to shop, prepare and even eat the meals they need for health. Fatigue can limit their ability to cook for themselves. Grief or depression can also impact their desire to make their own meals or eat alone.
- Lack of desire for the meals served in the facility or by home delivery. Some seniors are often uninterested in the foods they are given or just want to choose their meals. When this is not the case, they often refuse to eat. Many seniors just want foods they remember or grew up eating which may not be what’s on the menu where they live. They may even have lost some of their sense of taste or smell, which could make meals less than satisfying. Some may want to cook their own food as they once did.
Snacks for Seniors
Family caregivers can supplement the meals their senior’s choose to eat with nutrient dense snacks.
It is important to remember that some snacks should be tailored to their individual needs if they have a medical condition such as diabetes or trouble chewing, so be aware of any chronic condition they may have.
Snacks that are high in salt, sugar, fat or excess calories without nutrition should be avoided.
Here are some examples of nutritious snacks your senior may like:
- Greek yogurt with fruit
- Cheese and crackers
- Sandwiches made with deli meat like chicken breast or salads like chicken salad
- Granola bars especially softer varieties such as Nutrigrain or KIND nut butter bars or breakfast bars
- Fruit or fruit/vegetable juice blend beverages
- Nuts or trail mix
- Vegetables (parboil the veggies if they have trouble chewing raw) and dip
- Smoothie or milkshake with fruit/vegetables
- Pudding or gelatin snack cups
- Fruit cups packed in their own juice
- String cheese sticks
- Raisins, yogurt covered raisins, craisins, dates, or figs
- Real fruit snacks
- Peanut butter and crackers
- Hard boiled eggs
- Stewed prunes, dried fruit such as apricots
- Fig newtons
- Hummus and pita
- Homemade leftover dinner (small portion)
- Ice cream or fruit juice bar
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Sunflower or pumpkin seeds
- Wheat or fruit muffins
- Glass of chocolate milk or buttermilk
- Oatmeal cookies
- Bowl of cereal or oatmeal with berries
- Avocado on toast
- Pate on crackers
- Nutritional supplement including fortified fruit juice or clear supplement for a change
If you are bringing snacks to a facility, check ahead to be sure any perishable food can have refrigeration if they don’t eat it quickly.
Tips for Improved Nutrition In a Care Facility
When your senior loved one is living in a care facility and you are worried they may not be eating enough of the most nutritious foods, bringing some of these snacks with you whenever you visit will greatly increase their intake.
- The foods that are perishable should be eaten while you are there and disposed of by you to prevent food poisoning. Be sure the snacks you bring are healthy and will not spoil if left on the counter or bedside table until your next visit.
- Sit with your senior while they snack. Many seniors don’t eat as much because they are often eating by themselves and need someone with whom to socialize while they eat.
- Take the opportunity to observe them eating. Are they having a problem with the teeth or swallowing that might need an evaluation? Is the food consistency still appropriate or would soft, even chopped food be better tolerated?
- Are they drinking enough fluids? Offer them a beverage or simply a glass of water while you visit.
- Do they need a multivitamin or supplement to help them get all the nutrition they need or perhaps a short term appetite stimulant to get them back on the right track?
- It might be a good time to discuss their medical diet with the staff. Determine if it is still needed so that you can advocate for your senior to reducing their restrictive diet which might be inhibiting a good appetite. You can also discuss with the healthcare team if a possible drug review is appropriate to see if there are any changes that can be made to improve their appetite, eating or reduce any food-drug interactions.
- If your senior is not eating the facility food, perhaps it is time to talk with the staff to see what can be done to offer alternates at meals or find ways to increase the seasoning in the food to make it more palatable. Maybe the food isn’t as hot as they prefer and a change in meal time or location (in main dining room versus their room) would help. Perhaps they would eat better if their food could be prepared for them to pick up instead of using a utensil, this is known as finger foods.
Poor nutrition can lead to functional decline, increased falls, loss of muscle, weakened bones and a reduced quality of life for our seniors.
It couldn’t hurt to include bringing healthy snacks every visit to encourage your senior’s appetite and can potentially improve their well-being.