Many of our senior loved ones are not eating as well as they could, much like the rest of us.
There are many factors that come into play to prevent them from eating well.
There are always concerns about aging, functional decline, finances, chronic disease conditions, loneliness, and lack of motivation to change habits.
Your senior loved one may also have physical difficulties they can’t seem to overcome or manage that interfere with their ability to eat properly.
Family caregivers can help seniors find ways to make problems into opportunities for new solutions so they can eat right to stay well as long as possible.
Nutrition Roadblocks for Independent-Living Seniors
There are some obvious factors that may be influencing whether or not your senior loved one is eating right but there may also be some reasons that you can’t see — or they aren’t letting you see — that could be impacting their ability to eat healthy meals.
- They aren’t interested in cooking anymore especially when they eat alone. If they don’t like eating alone, they probably won’t put much effort into creating a meal and may grab anything or nothing. Loneliness can lead to depression which can further decrease how much elders eat.
- They aren’t feeling strong enough to prepare a meal. They get tired easily so standing over the stove or sink isn’t appealing.
- After the death of the cooking spouse, a senior may not have the skills needed to prepare foods properly or feel capable of doing it and ends up opening a can or microwave foods that aren’t as nutritious or complete.
- They are becoming more forgetful and can’t remember all the steps required to prepare meals as they once did.
- Their taste buds have changed and nothing tastes good to them so they stop cooking and eating right. Maybe they have a loss of smell so their favorite foods have lost their appeal.
- They are having difficulty with chewing or swallowing. Perhaps their dentures are hurting or loose. Maybe chewing tough foods and meats is too difficult or tiring so they stop making these nutritious foods. If they find themselves choking or coughing after eating, it can be scary so may be choosing only soft or liquid foods missing out on better nutrition.
- They don’t have money to buy groceries. Perhaps their medications and other bills are draining their spending money.
- They have trouble driving to the store or carrying their groceries back home so have cut back on foods they keep in the house. Research shows that some elders have money for food but currently lack the resources to access food (such as transportation or mobility) or prepare food (safe appliances or work areas).
- Because they aren’t eating as much as they once were, more of the food they buy spoils so they may feel that it is a waste of time to keep buying food only to throw it away.
- They may be taking medications which impair their appetite or have a chronic disease for which they are over-restricting their diet to control.
When our seniors begin eating less, for whatever reason, it begins a downward spiral that is tough to break free from later.
Loss of appetite or just poor food choices can impair nutrition and health to the point that muscle loss occurs which will then limit their mobility and functional status. When this occurs seniors can have trouble completing tasks of daily living and are more prone to falling.
How Family Caregivers Can Help
Family caregivers can do some things to help senior loved ones get back on track and keep from spiraling out of control with poor eating habits.
Because so many seniors are food insecure and have limited access to sufficient affordable and nutritious food, we should all be concerned about our senior loved ones who may not be eating right.
Did you know that 15.2% of seniors, or 8.8 million, face the threat of hunger? It is true and your senior may be one without you realizing it!
The first thing to do is observe them for signs of poor eating habits, such as weight loss, mouth pain or refusal to wear dentures, less garbage, poor skin color, fatigue and any complaints that are new.
- Can they drive to get groceries? Can they carry them home if they walk or drive? Can they put the food away on shelves in the kitchen or it is too high? Perhaps they need assistance from a home companion to go to the grocery store or have the foods delivered from a local grocery store instead if transportation is an issue.
- Is their refrigerator, freezer and stove working properly? Do they need a new appliance or repairs to what they have now? Is their current stove a fire or safety hazard? They can’t cook without functional equipment. Do they have running water at the sink?
- Would they benefit from Meals on Wheels, which could provide one nutritious meal a day and someone to check up on them? There are almost 135 million meals delivered annually by Meals on Wheels programs.
- Do they need denture repair, relining or remaking so that they fit properly and will not cause pain? Do they have mouth sores that need help to heal?
- Do they need to see a doctor or speech therapist for assistance with chewing or swallowing difficulties? Do they need a dietitian to help them find the appropriate texture of foods that will give them the nutrition they need?
- Should they go to the senior center near them to have socialization so they won’t be as lonely and have someone to talk with for at least one meal?
- Is there enough money in the budget for food? Do they qualify for SNAP benefits that you can help them get? Do they need help to see if they are spending too much in other areas leaving them without enough for food, for example Part D prescription plan or energy bills?
- Do they need a cooking class to learn some basic cooking skills? They often have these at senior centers or community colleges as part of lifelong learning programs for seniors.
- Do they need help seasoning their food or learning about new foods so that their appetite can be stimulated with new smells, flavors and interests?
- Can the pharmacist review their medication list to see if there are pills that could be causing loss of appetite as a side effect? Perhaps the doctor can suggest other drugs that won’t cause this outcome.
- Do they need a strength building program and balance training exercises that can help them build muscles and stamina so that they can complete all their activities of daily living including cooking and even eating? This is also great for fall prevention.
- Can you or others that you enlist bring them meals once or more during the week to be sure they are getting some healthy meals and not just a can of soup for dinner every night?
- Can you help them package foods into smaller portion containers and freeze some so that they won’t be losing as much to food waste?
These are a few suggestions for things to consider and steps you can take to help your senior loved one eat better so that they can stay healthy!
‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’