Poor nutrition among our senior loved ones is a concern for many family caregivers.
Did you know it is estimated that one in six seniors in the nation are hungry every day?
That’s a real call for action!
Unfortunately, hunger may be a problem for many seniors whose family members don’t realize it so aren’t reaching out to help them.
Lack of proper nutrition carries physical and medical consequences for our seniors, including unhealthy weight loss, muscle loss or sarcopenia, falls, fractures, confusion, fatigue, dehydration, and poorly controlled chronic diseases.
These conditions can lead to hospitalization for our senior loved ones and may be even a loss of independence.
Malnutrition in Seniors
A recent study reported that as many as 29% of seniors living in the community, versus a care facility, had sarcopenia, which is defined by the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength that occurs with advancing age.
It is important for seniors’ health to eat a wide variety of foods, including nutrient dense fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and dairy while limiting added sugar, salt and saturated fats.
Seniors need adequate calories to provide energy to fuel their body as well as nutrients of concern, such as vitamin D, B6, B12 and folate. Calcium is important, as well as adequate protein, to prevent muscle loss.
If your senior decides they need to take supplemental vitamins and minerals to help with any shortfall in nutritional intake, be sure they don’t exceed recommended amounts as too much can be dangerous and may interfere with their prescription medications.
Getting a variety of foods and nutrients in their daily diet is a priority. Supplements should only be used as enhancements — not substitutes for a healthy diet.
Many Contributors to Senior Malnutrition
Other factors also contribute to malnutrition for aging seniors such as:
- Poor dental care, ill-fitting dentures, mouth pain
- Poor appetite due to multiple medications, chronic disease
- Lack of safe transportation to purchase food
- Lack of financial resources to buy nutrient dense, fresh foods
- Inability to prepare their own meals due to immobility, confusion, or fatigue
- Cognitive impairment that interferes with ability to sequence task of cooking or impaired safety
- Swallowing difficulties
- Depression, loneliness
- Altered taste perception
- Need for diet restrictions due to disease (Note: 61% of seniors have multiple chronic diseases)
New Collaborations Provide Nutrition for Seniors
One agency which understands the specific nutritional needs of our seniors and the lack of good nutrition for many community dwelling older adults is Meals on Wheels.
Connecting healthcare professionals with the notion that a healthy, nutritious meal could be as important as a drug prescription for seniors leaving the hospital to return home is the goal for one Meals on Wheels Program in Spokane Washington.
They are working to not only help seniors stay healthy once they return home after a hospital stay, they hope by improving health through nutrition, they can help keep these seniors from returning to the hospital.
A full recovery and health with the resources to eat right can help prevent malnutrition for seniors at risk for hospitalizations and loss of independent living at home.
To achieve this goal, the Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels program has begun working with other community nutrition organizations to figure out how to integrate nutrition into health care systems.
Doctors and hospitals don’t often consider how a senior will get nourishing and restorative foods once they return home. The lack of proper nutrition can impede their recovery and keep them from quickly returning to the hospital.
Community based nutrition programs are encouraging the healthcare system to screen for malnutrition risk and help reduce it by connecting seniors with the community resources available for their well-being.
This program reminds us that 1 in 3 seniors are malnourished when they enter the hospital. One in every five Medicare patients sent to the hospital ends up returning within a month.
In 2014 the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition reported that disease-associated malnutrition in the US costs $157 billion each year.
This program and others like it are building bridges to collaborate with healthcare systems to get meals to seniors who need them. By providing seniors with the nourishing food they need, the goal is to keep them healthy to remain at home which will ultimately reduce healthcare costs.
What Can Caregivers Do?
It is important for family caregivers to be aware of the effect poor nutrition has on the overall health and quality of life of our seniors.
A pattern of poor intake can impact their physical and mental health but caregivers can step in to prevent a health crisis.
When you are visiting, be sure to check their pantry and refrigerator to determine if they have good quality foods in an appropriate variety.
It is important to know if they are eating the healthy foods that are in their kitchen or if they end up throwing it away when it spoils.
Observe them for any physical changes such as weight loss or a change in their gait which could signal muscle loss.
- Do they complain of hunger, mouth pain or being too weak to prepare their meals?
Try to determine the best way to help them get and eat the foods that will nourish them.
Perhaps you could help with the grocery shopping, meal preparation, or suggest specific foods or changes in texture that will enable them to eat more.
- Do they need to visit the dentist?
- Would they be more likely to eat complete meals if they were in a senior center during the day with their peers or if a pre-made meal were delivered to their door.
- Are they lonely and in need of a meal companion to alleviate loneliness?
- Will their budget stretch to allow them to buy the foods they should be eating?
- Can they get to the grocery store and then bring home their purchases without help or a ride?
- Are they mobile enough to prepare their own food or need some assistance or adaptive equipment to make the job easier?
Caregivers can diagnose and treat many obstacles that could be true roadblocks to seniors getting the nutrition that they need.
When you are able to observe, investigate and correct any of these roadblocks to good nutrition, your senior’s independence and quality of life can be improved!