We worry when those we love aren’t eating as well as they once did or as much as we think they should.
It isn’t worry just for our kids, but also older adults in our lives.
Poor nutritional intake affecting our aging senior loved ones is a real concern for many of us.
Seniors continue to need the same amount of nutrients — vitamins and minerals — as they age, but don’t always need as many calories when their activity level slows.
Unfortunately, when they eat less, the nutritional content of their meals is also less. And often not enough!
This lack of essential nutrients can lead to a decline in health.
What can we do to help our seniors get more of the nutrients they need at a time when they don’t or can’t eat enough?
Obstacles to Good Nutrition
There are many reasons why the seniors in our families slow down their intake.
Many seniors will tell us that they don’t do enough, aren’t active enough, to eat. They feel that without burning off the calories, they shouldn’t eat.
Many equate a lack of hunger to a lack of need, but this isn’t the case.
Some older adults have no desire to cook, shop, or eat when they are alone.
They may not have the energy to shop and prepare foods as they once did and are satisfied with opening a can of soup or dishing up a bowl of ice cream.
Unfortunately, some seniors don’t have the financial means to buy healthy foods, especially when they are on a fixed income with medical expenses and multiple prescriptions to purchase each month.
Some seniors have trouble chewing and swallowing, so they begin restricting their intake out of fear of choking.
Other older adults experience gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, or cramping. Their response is to begin eliminating foods to the point of eating a very restrictive amount of food.
This may also happen when they have a medical diagnosis such as heart disease and get overly restrictive in an attempt to prevent worsening of their medical condition without enough education to make wise choices.
You can help your senior loved one overcome some of the obstacles to eating a healthy diet with a few small changes.
- Visit them more often during meal times so they won’t be alone when it comes time for a good meal.
- Motivate and facilitate them to get more physical with activities they enjoy, such as walking with a buddy, dancing, or other movement activities. Keeping muscles strong is important as we age.
- Shop with them to suggest some easy to prepare, healthy items such as Greek yogurt; steamable frozen vegetables; fruit cups; canned chicken, turkey, salmon or ham to add to salads/sandwiches/casseroles/stir fry meals; and other items they may not realize are on grocery shelves.
- Check out BenefitsCheckup.org to see if they qualify for help buying groceries or farmer’s market produce (or other financial benefits).
- Connect them with a senior activity center in the neighborhood, where they can meet their peers for socialization, education, medical attention, and a hot, nutritious meal.
- Investigate the possibility of a home delivered meal service so that you can be guaranteed they will get one nutritious meal a day and then encourage them to eat it!
- Observe their eating to rule out any physical limitation that could need medical intervention, such as swallowing or chewing trouble.
- Find out if they have gone to the dentist lately. Do their current dentures fit? Do they have mouth sores?
- Would they benefit from some special modifications or adaptive tools to make cooking easier for them? Sometimes, putting things in reach, using built up handles or breaking tasks into smaller jobs can improve their physical ability to prepare their own meals.
- If they have a swallowing problem and need thick liquids but refuse to use, you might them try some liquids that are naturally thicker (more viscous) than water and are helpful when thin liquids are not safe. Some examples include tomato juice, V-8 juice, nectars (found in the ethnic or juice aisle): guava, apricot, etc., whole milk, eggnog, buttermilk, Kefir yogurt drinks, or nutritional supplements.
- Do they have an underlying medical condition or medication interactions that could be causing a lack of appetite? Talk with their doctor or pharmacist. Are GI issues impeding eating adequate nutrition?
- Check their pantry and refrigerator to be sure they are not consuming food that is spoiled or expired.
Help Them Keep Their Health
Sometimes, especially as our bodies age, a call to hunger can really be a call for nutrients.
We may get distracted by the constant barrage of caring for our young family members but we also need to give some attention to the older family members who may be in need of our focus more than we realize.
Preventing them from losing their health and quality of life may take a smaller amount of attention now than caring for them in a debilitated state later.
‘Those who think they have no time for healthy eating will sooner or later have to find time for illness.’