Eating Challenges for Seniors

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Food is central to our health – and, to a degree, our happiness, as food is something we often enjoy sharing with friends and family. Most people have food-related stories around their social events or holidays. As we age, however, sometimes that joy is diminished by our body’s decreased capacity to intake nutrients, mechanical issues with chewing and digestion, and a declining sense of taste.

When eating is no longer enjoyable, it can be tempting to skip eating or to choose processed or frozen foods that are quick and easy to prepare. Unfortunately, often these are less nutritious choices that many seniors cannot afford to make while maintaining their health. Malnutrition is a gateway to weakness, loss of muscle strength, wounds that don’t heal as quickly, and reduced mental capacity. One study noted that over 43% of older patients admitted to intensive care were malnourished and that they were more likely to have complications and longer hospital stays than other patients.

It’s important to watch out for things that might cause your senior loved one to eschew a healthy eating style:

  • Medications can impair smell and taste, making food seem less appetizing.
  • Conditions which affect the teeth or mouth can make chewing and swallowing difficult.
  • Arthritis can make holding a fork or knife painful leading to an over-reliance on snack and finger foods.
  • Losing their partner, and the subsequent depression and feelings of isolation, can remove the desire to prepare a meal for just themselves.
  • Reduced income may mean that choices must be made between quality foods and other living costs.
  • Many physicians are not trained in nutrition and may treat the symptoms of malnutrition with drugs and therapy, without realizing the cause could easily be remedied with a better diet.

In order to stay ahead of malnutrition challenges, seniors are encouraged to follow these guidelines:

  • Eat whole foods that offer a lot of nutrients without extra calories such as brightly colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy with added vitamin D and calcium, seafood and lean meats, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds.
  • Avoid foods with empty calories such as those that are highly processed as well as soda and alcohol.
  • Choose foods that are lower in fat and not fried.
  • Drink plenty of liquids, especially water.
  • Reduce salt consumption and increase spices that add flavor to the foods.
  • Increase exercise of any kind as it can work to stimulate appetite.

For seniors who simply have a small appetite, they can add calories and nutrition without adding bulk by introducing homemade sauces or gravies and/or grated cheese to dishes. Stirring powdered milk in dishes can add calcium. Adding honey, molasses or maple syrup to breakfast cereal (for the non-diabetic of course!) can help raise their blood sugar. Adding wheat germ to cereals and baked goods can increase the nutritional value without adding bulk. Additionally, consider eating more small meals during the day instead of a couple of larger ones that can be overwhelming to both prepare and to eat.

It helps to follow a regular schedule for meals so that it is as simple as looking at a clock to know that it is time to eat. If you have a senior loved one who doesn’t remember to look at clocks, find a calendar or app that will sound an alarm for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. It’s also helpful to find a friend or neighbor to share meals with several times a week. Social eating can be an encouragement to stay healthy.

If you are not nearby to monitor your senior loved ones’ eating habits, or if you need extra support yourself, it might be worth looking into a service such as Meals on Wheels where they will bring healthy foods to your older adult and, at the same time, look in on whether they seem to be eating what is brought. A side benefit is that often the people who bring the meals will sit with your loved one for a snack or chat, adding a social component to the nutritional one.

Assisting Hands Home Care serving Columbus, OH has caregivers who enjoy working with their clients to prepare meals and enjoy spending time with them. This can make meal preparate both safer and more enjoyable. Give us a call today to find out how our professional caregivers can help with nutritional support and other personal care needs.


Sources: ClearCare; Winchester Hospital; Tufts University; Cleveland Clinic; US National Library of Medicine; WebMD