Malnutrition in Our Senior Loved Ones – What it Means & How to Spot It

Something seems to be wrong and you just don’t know what it is – – or what you can do about it.

You are a good caregiver. You are doing the shopping, medication administration, cooking and entertaining for your senior loved one. You know without your loving attention, things could be so much worse for your senior.

You are not alone here!

Unfortunately, despite all your best efforts, your senior just doesn’t seem to be healthy. They often refuse meals or they eat like a bird when you prepare their favorite foods.

Undernutrition may be the culprit.

Prevalence of Malnutrition in Seniors

In a nation where much time and attention is being focused on obesity – with good reason – we know it seems strange to talk about malnutrition and undernutrition, which is likely part of the reason caregivers and families don’t notice it.  Malnutrition is, unfortunately, far too common and could be a very serious situation in our senior loved ones.

In the community where you are caring for your senior as opposed to a facility, in 2010 the risk for development of malnutrition has been estimated to be 32% and the actual number of those diagnosed with malnutrition is 6%. Those numbers are increasing since the likelihood of malnutrition increases as we age.

Malnutrition may lead to other problems in our senior loved ones, including increased falls, loss of muscle mass or sarcopenia, wounds or poor healing, infections, hospitalizations and even death.

What exactly is malnutrition? Malnutrition as it relates to our elderly population can also be considered to be undernutrition. Ongoing insufficient intake of foods and fluids that results in a deficiency of energy, protein and other nutrients resulting in changes to the body. It can also be a result of a person’s inability to fully utilize the food they eat due to illness.

Malnutrition / Undernutrition Causes

Many seniors are healthy, active and free from difficulties with eating. Many can, however, be affected by their aging and lifestyle changes that impact their nutritional health.

  • Impairment in sense of taste and smell can lead to a lack of appetite. This can be related to medications.
  • Problems with teeth and gums which make it hard to chew different types of foods; loose and ill-fitting dentures following weight loss; missing and decayed teeth can cause painful eating
  • Difficulty swallowing, whether from loss of muscle tone, stroke effects, dryness or any other cause can make getting adequate nutrition next to impossible
  • Inability to prepare their own meals, shop for foods, live in a food desert where healthy food not accessible
  • Being unable to afford to buy a variety of wholesome foods
  • Lack of transportation to secure food
  • Lack of energy or fatigue for preparation or eating
  • Lack of adequate facilities for storing and cooking foods
  • Being isolated, not wanting to cook or eat alone

Spotting Malnutrition

Your healthcare professional can do screening tests on your senior to help determine if more intervention is needed to get back on track with nutrition. These screening tests usually involve asking questions and taking measurements such as height and weight. They can also do blood work to test if a nutritional deficiency is present.

You can also check some things out for yourself and make changes to improve the nutritional health of your senior loved one.

  • Is your senior losing weight? There are many reasons why weight loss can be happening, so try to determine what that might be and resolve it. Does the food need more seasoning, do they need smaller more frequent meals, do they need chopped meat, do they need gravy on meat, do they need more water, do they need to drink between meals instead of at meals to decrease fullness, do they need a quieter place to eat, are there too many distractions during meals including a busy patterned tablecloth or plate, is a swallow problem occurring that should be evaluated, could they use a supplement or appetite stimulant? Unfortunately, the list of what could be wrong is long but a few simple changes can spur their appetite.
  • Are they having trouble chewing food? Do they need adjustments to dentures? If so, can the dentist either make a new set or re-line the old set? Will it help to use a denture cream or foam liner that you insert? Are the dentures being removed and cleaned properly? If food is getting caught between dentures and gums, there could be sores causing pain that you should treat.
  • Are they alone too much? Do they eat alone at every meal? Can you find someone to join them if you can not so they are not alone and isolated.
  • Are they depressed? Does your senior seem sad and tearful? Often when depression begins to settle over seniors, they lose their appetite. Talk with your doctor if this might be a problem for your senior so that it can be treated.
  • Has their medication list been reviewed lately? Sometimes certain medications can lead to decreased appetite, taste changes, and dry mouth which might lead to weight loss. You can ask the pharmacist or your doctor to review the list of drugs for possible interactions or negative side effects.
  • Have they had a health check-up lately including blood work? There could be something going on medically such as blood sugar or pressure problems interfering with their well-being. Are they sleeping enough? Poor sleep can lead to decreased energy for eating.
  • Ask them about their feelings about eating, they might surprise you with their answer. Maybe they are not getting the foods they enjoy or the ones they crave. Perhaps more traditional meals or comfort foods are what they are wishing for so when the meal is served they refuse it. Taste fatigue is real too. If the same food is served over and over they can lose their interest and stop eating. Maybe they need to be more involved in the planning and preparation even if it is only washing vegetables or setting the table.

So many things can influence how much and when we want to eat as we get older. Many older adults feel that since they are not as physically active as they once were, that they don’t need to eat as much. Some don’t want to drink because they know that they will have to go to the bathroom more often and that can be tiring.

Nutrition Still Important in Our Older Years

The unfortunate reality is that even as people age, the amount of nutrition we need including vitamins and minerals and macronutrients like protein remain the same as when we were younger. Older adults don’t generally need as many calories due to decreased activity so getting all the nutrients they need requires more attention to detail so nutrient rich foods are chosen.

Sometimes, a few changes can stabilize your senior’s nutrition when caught and addressed. Don’t wait too long to intervene or it could be difficult to reverse.

You may want to check out some related posts below on things you can do to improve your senior’s eating.

2 thoughts on “Malnutrition in Our Senior Loved Ones – What it Means & How to Spot It”

  1. Muscle Milk high protein powder in almond milk does a great job of delivering nutrition. Solid foods are not the only form of nutrition available.

    • That is correct, there are several ways to get nutrition via liquids incluidng muscle milk, supplements, smoothies and just a glass of whole milk! Replacing beverages without nutrition such as soda or coffee can improve then nutrients our seniors can consume! Thanks!

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