Adult children often worry about their aging parents’ eating habits. Sometimes the elders live alone and don’t feel like cooking or even going out to buy groceries. They may have pain issues that keep them from enjoying food, or dentures that make chewing uncomfortable. Depression can be a factor for some people, as can medication side effects. Loneliness, especially for people who have lost a spouse to a nursing home or death, can make eating seem unimportant or unattractive.
Several of these issues affected my mother. She had always been a wonderful cook and enjoyed healthy meals. However, after my dad’s failed surgery left him unable to live at home with Mom, her enthusiasm for cooking, and even eating, diminished.
I tried my best to keep Mom’s kitchen well stocked with the fruits and vegetables she’s always enjoyed, along with easy to prepare main dish ingredients, but I know that her meals became just one more thing to do as time went on. Increasing pain became an issue for Mom, as well. With her deteriorating health, the medications she needed for pain and missing the companionship of her husband, she ate less and less.
Eventually, she, too, required nursing home care. The staff tried hard to convince her to eat more so she wouldn’t keep losing weight, but she simply couldn’t. Eventually, she found the very sight of most food nauseating. I still kept the ice chest in her room stocked with her favorite foods, but as time went on, there was little that would tempt her. Toward the end of her life, she weighed little over 80 pounds.
Is lack of appetite normal aging or disease?
According to Heather Schwartz, Registered Dietitian at Stanford Hospital and Clinics, “…often loss of appetite (and thirst) is a normal part of aging and doesn’t always mean something is wrong…However, minimizing the detrimental effects of poor nutrient intake is always important, no matter from where the low appetite stems.”
Dr. John Morley, geriatrics director at Saint Louis University Hospital and a professor of medicine says, “There’s a fair amount of evidence that suggests if you lose appetite as an older person, in the next six months you’ll have a higher chance of dying.”
Offering frequent, small meals and can be effective
Nursing homes have come a long way during this last decade. In the past, three meals a day were the norm, along with mid-afternoon snacks. The main meal, generally served at noon, would be hot and heavy, with enough food for a farmer just in from the field. This type of meal is often intimidating and unappetizing to an elder with a poor appetite. Now, most good nursing facilities have switched to a system where people can choose when they eat and how often. Many elders thrive on frequent smaller meals, with options of both warm and cool dishes. Elders living at home are no different.