The elderly, who are the fastest growing segment of the US population, may have a very difficult time getting all the nutrients required for a balanced diet. If you take care of a senior person, parent or grandparent there are plenty of steps you can take to help them get adequate nutrition as they get older. Getting the proper nutrition is important for people of all ages but eating right often becomes difficult for seniors. Malnutrition often presents itself as weight loss, disorientation, and/ or lightheadedness and is often times mistaken for illness or disease.
The best way to find out why your loved one is not eating well is to pay more attention to their daily eating habits and ask them questions. Be encouraging of honesty and openness and reassure them that they are not a burden to you or anyone else in your family. Remind them that they are important to you and that you are there to take care of them.
Some of the possible causes of poor nutrition include decreases in sensitivities of the senses of smell and taste. This affects their ability to taste and enjoy food making them less likely to eat. Another cause is the side effects of medications which sometimes reduce appetite, make foods taste strangely, or cause nausea. Many seniors are also on fixed or limited incomes and out of worry for money, they may cut back on grocery expenses and buying more nutritious foods in favor of less expensive food. Seniors also experience physical difficulties as they become frailer with age and deal with arthritis and fibromyalgia. Simple tasks like peeling fruit or standing for a long time to cook a meal become too challenging. “But, when nutritional needs become more complex (as for persons with diabetes, high blood pressure or Alzheimer’s who may need low-sugar, low-salt or pureed diets, for example) and/or seniors have increasing needs, a skilled nursing home stay may be more appropriate,” says Mr. John E. Kasarda, the Administrator of Little Brook Nursing Home in Califon, NJ. Nursing homes can tailor meals to a senior’s specific health and nutritional needs.
Here are some practical tips to ensure that your senior is getting proper nutrition:
First, offer nutritionally dense foods because many seniors don’t eat as much as they should. The food they do eat should be as nutritious as possible. For example, offer unprocessed, whole foods that are: a) high in calories with healthy fats from nuts, butter, and olive oil, b) whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat bread, and whole grain cereals, c) fresh fruits and vegetables, d) protein-rich beans, legumes, and e) dairy products.
Second, prepare food that smells aromatic and flavorful. As a senior’s senses become dulled with age, it is important to prepare foods that smell strongly delicious in order to stimulate their appetite. You can intensify tastes with herbs, marinades, dressings, and sauces to easily increase food intake.
Third, combine textures such as yogurt with granola and switch between a variety of foods during one meal to keep eating interesting.
Fourth, make eating a bigger family occasion. Depressed seniors who feel lonely and isolated are less likely to take the time to sit down to eat a healthy meal. Sit down with the whole family or invite them over on a more frequent basis. When mealtime becomes an interesting and fun occasion, seniors are likely to eat more and are more likely to enjoy what they are eating.
And fifth, promote healthy snacks in between meals. Many seniors don’t enjoy large meals so an alternative solution is to plan for several mini-meals throughout the day. Make the meals nutritionally dense with many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Cut back on high sodium meals and food with high saturated fat content.
“A senior’s golden years should be about living in peace, happiness, dignity, comfort, safety and good health. Your loved one deserves excellent nutritional and comprehensive nursing care!” says Mr. Kasarda.
Editor: Dr. JP Hampilos, Senior Care Focus;
Adapted from Roberto Sedycias’ article “Making Sure Your Elderly Loved One Is Eating Right” with excerpts from an interview with John E. Kasarda, Administrator at Little Brook Nursing Home.
Senior Care Focus, Issue No. 15, Fall 2014