The importance of good nutrition for seniors cannot be understated as they age.
Getting the nutrients they need is just as vital now as when they were younger — for some even more important.
Seniors need nutrients to remain healthy and strong but often don’t need the same amount of calories as when they were younger.
Because their calorie intake declines, many seniors are not getting the nutrition they need to keep themselves healthy. When they reduce their overall intake, they also reduce the level of essential nutrients they get each day.
Reducing the amount and quality of the food they eat has many causes, including finances, accessibility, loss of hunger or appetite, difficulty preparing meals, trouble chewing/swallowing/self-feeding and loneliness. Alterations in taste and smell can also impair the quality of a senior’s diet.
Consequences of Poor Meal Intake
When seniors start to skimp on meals or skip meals altogether, their nutrition becomes compromised, which in turn damages their health. Seniors who live alone are especially vulnerable to poor eating habits.
It has been shown that two out of five seniors living alone show signs of poor nutrition.
The quality of their diets can affect their health and the diseases from which they suffer. Sometimes when seniors try hard to follow doctor prescribed diets, in their effort to follow the diet they can become over restrictive and miss out on key nutrients.
When seniors’ diets are out of balance their health can be affected.
- Fat intake can be related to heart disease, cancer of the colon and prostate.
- The lack of nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients, can lead to osteoporosis.
- Diabetes, high blood pressure, and other cancers have a strong dietary link as well.
- As their bodies lose strength, seniors have more difficulty meeting their own needs and are at risk for skin breakdown, falls, confusion, weakness and potentially long term care facility placement.
What Caregivers Can Do To Improve Seniors’ Nutrition
Caregivers worry about the health of their senior loved ones and know the consequences of poor eating can mean a loss of independence. Doing whatever we can to improve the nutrient intake and therefore the health of our aging seniors is our goal.
Here are some suggestions for caregivers:
- Observe your senior loved one to determine the root cause of their decreased intake. Are they having trouble with their teeth or dentures? Do they have difficulty swallowing or a dry mouth? Are they weak and unable to cook for themselves? Can they access food or are supermarket trips too demanding? When you determine some of the causes, you can work on solutions.
- Get them a health checkup. Is your senior ill? Are they eating less because they have medications that are changing their taste buds or decreasing their appetite? Do they have an undiagnosed illness that makes them feel weak or ill? Perhaps a trip to the doctor for an evaluation would be helpful.
- Check their refrigerator. Do they need to be cleared out of foods that are expired? Are the foods they have nutritious or primarily ‘junk’ containing few nutrients? Do they need help selecting more nutritious foods that they can prepare? Be sure there are sources of all types of foods including dairy, protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If not, you may need to intervene with shopping help or home delivery.
- Would they benefit from home delivered meals, either from an agency for seniors like Meals on Wheels, an organization that prepares meals or even a restaurant nearby that delivers? Sometimes having a complete hot meal available helps with overall intake. 60% report that cooking for one is a challenge to getting healthy food.
- Can you or other family members stop by at mealtimes so that seniors are not alone or lonely? When there is someone to talk with during a meal, seniors often eat more. It has been reported that 76% of seniors report eating alone. Companionship and socialization will help to improve eating habits.
- Help with healthy snacks. Many seniors find it difficult to eat three balanced meals throughout the day due to feelings of fullness, lack of desire or energy to create the meals or being alone. You can help guide them to nutrient dense snacks that can supplement their smaller meals, such as Greek yogurt, peanut butter crackers or half sandwiches. Be sure they have healthy snacks on hand ready to eat when needed.
- Offer financial assistance. Many seniors are spending less than $100 a month on food, others think they can’t afford nutritious foods and some need more support. Perhaps you can help them budget their income better or steer them to buying nutritious foods spending less (using coupons, buying with sales or in-season). If they aren’t receiving help from the government, you can go to benefitscheckup.org to see if they are eligible for assistance programs such as SNAP that can give them some money toward food. If you can, help buy some nutritious food for them to keep the pantry stocked.
- Arrange senior center participation. Family caregivers can connect seniors with the nearest senior center where they can socialize, learn something new, participate in events and get a balanced meal. You may need to arrange transportation for them to attend.
- Invite your senior to dinner. Make it a routine to include your senior in your family meal once or twice a week or take them out to a restaurant where they can pick their favorites and take home a doggy bag. When they eat at your house, send them home with another night’s meal to reheat. Involve other family members and hopefully the main part of their week’s meals will be planned not to mention the added socialization.
Other Actions to Consider
If another step is needed, you might consider nutritional supplements, such as shakes or power bars, that your senior can add to the mix. This will give them a little extra nutrition as insurance, as long as they don’t use it as a meal replacement.
A multivitamin might also help, if they are not taking one already.
Your senior’s doctor may suggest an appetite stimulant if things are reaching a crisis point but that should be a last resort.
Getting physically active will increase your senior’s appetite so keep them busy! Don’t forget keeping hydrated, so water should be kept in reach and sipped throughout the day!
Some of these solutions are not too hard to accomplish. They will be fun for you and them.
When given a preference, most seniors prefer to eat with others so giving them some company will help them improve their eating habits.
A little good nutrition will allow them to feel better, be healthier, and enjoy life!