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.
Increasing calories, nutrition and social interaction
Dietitians who specialize in nutrition for elders generally stress nutrient density over portion size. This is one time in our lives where calorie dense food and supplemental drinks are not only okay - for many they are desirable. Easy to eat foods are a good choice. A homemade smoothie with a yogurt base and extra fruit and protein can be a nutritious, calorie dense snack for elders with no chewing required.
Socialization helps, as well. One of the most positive aspects of assisted living facilities is often the communal meals. As people adjust to their new environment, many of them begin to look forward to sharing meals with their new friends.
As caregivers we face significant challenges. When it comes to our elders and their diet, we can experiment with meal size and timing and we can tempt our loved ones with their favorite foods. If the problem is serious, we can ask for advice from our loved one’s doctor and elder nutrition specialists. What we shouldn’t do is shame our elders into eating or push them to eat more than they can comfortably handle.
Stevenson, S. (2013, January 23) Loss of Appetite in Elderly: Causes and How to Cope. A Place for Mom. Retrieved from http://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/01-23-2013-loss-of-appetite-in-elderly/
NBC News (2005, June 13) Appetite loss in elderly not a good sign: Reasons can range from bad dentures to depression, experts say. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/8203257/#.URJoTGdS6So
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.