Growing up, your mom and dad always encouraged you to eat well. Now, however, your parents are getting older — and you’re starting to notice that they barely eat anything but toast or cereal themselves.
If this story sounds familiar, you’re certainly not alone! Many seniors lose their appetites as they age, for a host of reasons — and this appetite loss is a common source of concern for loving family caregivers.
While some loss of appetite is to be expected as a normal part of aging, it can be worrying when you start to notice that your elderly loved one is losing weight, letting food spoil in the fridge, or even refusing to eat altogether. Let’s explore some common reasons why the senior in your life may be putting off food, and what you can do to help:
Causes of Appetite Loss In the Elderly
In an interview with NBC News, one Indiana dietitian who serves the elderly estimated that “half of new admissions to long-term-care facilities are malnourished.” Research also suggests that about 20 percent of seniors who live alone display at least four warning signs of poor nutritional health.
As we get older, some appetite loss is entirely normal. Our metabolism naturally slows as we age, and most of us tend to become less physically active, meaning that we require fewer calories overall. Similarly, changes to the senses of taste and smell can cause many older adults to experience food differently, leading to a slightly lessened appetite.
With that said, however, severe and intense loss of appetite can be a cause for concern in its own right — and, in some cases, an early warning sign of more serious health problems. Over time, eating less may cause seniors to lose a significant amount of weight or become malnourished. Nutrient deficiencies can lead to a whole host of health problems.
Meanwhile, for some seniors, an ongoing refusal to eat could stem from an underlying health condition. Some older adults give up on eating because they are having dental problems, ranging from ill-fitting dentures to dry mouth. Others may give up on cooking and serving themselves because of limited mobility, or changes to their sense of sight. In other cases, a lack of appetite could be a serious side effect stemming from one or more medications, or a symptom of a serious health condition, such as a gastrointestinal disorder, infection, depression, or a thyroid problem. Finally, if your loved one is forgetting to eat, or experiencing confusion or mood swings at mealtimes, this could be a sign that they are experiencing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
What Can You Do to Promote Healthier Eating for Seniors?
As a family caregiver, it can be frightening to watch a senior loved one lose weight rapidly — and dispiriting to see them push away beloved meals or refuse their once-favorite snacks. If you’re concerned that your elderly loved one may not be eating well enough, it’s important to take action, before their loss of appetite gives way to an even more serious health concern.
Here are a few ways to help if a senior is ignoring meals or refusing to eat:
Consult With a Medical Professional
Loss of appetite and refusal to eat can be serious. It’s important to act quickly, and consult with your loved one’s care network. Medical professionals may be able to help identify the source of your loved one’s troubles and set out a course to help. Depending on your loved one’s unique situation, that could mean leading a review of their medications; looking for oral health problems; diagnosing and treating hidden health conditions; or even offering lifestyle strategies or prescriptions to help stimulate the appetite.
Set a Regular Schedule for Snacks and Meals
Regularity is key. Eating meals and sharing snacks at the same time each day can help “train” the body to be hungry at those times, making seniors more willing and ready to eat. Remember, older adults may not feel their sense of hunger as acutely. Rather than relying on them to ask for food, take care to create a predictable, dependable routine. A senior companion can be a great help in this regard, stepping in and serving meals on a set schedule during those times when you need to put your attention elsewhere.
Focus on Caloric and Nutrient Density — and Limit Portion Sizes
Seeing a large meal can be intimidating for seniors, especially those who are already experiencing less of an appetite. Rather than focusing on helping your loved one eat more servings or larger portions, it may be more effective to focus on making sure that their current serving sizes are nutritionally dense. There are plenty of senior-friendly foods that pack in healthful proteins and nutrients, including avocados, nut butters, eggs, and so on. NBC News also recommends including fortified foods in seniors’ diets, such as pre-packed cereals and protein powder.
Make Foods Easier to Eat
It’s important to keep track of your senior loved one’s habits and preferences at mealtimes, as this can be a great way to figure out what they like to eat, and, just as importantly, how they like to eat it. Depending on your senior’s needs and preferences, there are all sorts of ways that you or a professional senior companion can make mealtimes easier — including serving up finger foods that don’t require utensils, cutting up fruits and meats into bite-sized pieces, getting rid of excessive table clutter and distractions, or serving soft foods, such as smoothies and stews.
Make Mealtimes a Social Event
For cultures across the globe, sharing food is an incredibly important part of daily life. Studies have shown that in addition to boosting quality of life and happiness, regularly sharing meals with others can actually promote healthier eating habits among seniors. In fact, research suggests that seniors take longer to dine and make more nutritious choices when dining with companions, as opposed to eating alone. 85 percent of seniors also say that having someone to share their meals makes dining more satisfying. If you cannot always be there to share a meal with your older loved ones, a senior companion may be able to step in and help! With a senior companion, you can trust that your loved one will be able to split a meal and share great conversation with a reliable friend.
Looking for Help? Companions for Seniors Is Here
As a loving family caregiver to an elderly adult, taking the steps necessary to help your aging loved one can be tricky — especially when you need to balance your caregiving responsibilities with having to cook, clean, and provide for yourself and your family.
That’s where Companions for Seniors would love to help! At Companions for Seniors, our mission is to empower seniors to maintain a higher quality of life, while also providing respite and relief for family caregivers who may need some assistance.
We’ll help develop a personalized care plan that allows your loved one to live independently in the comfort of their own home, with the companionship they need to remain active and engaged — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Our companions understand the enormous impact that food and mealtimes can have on a senior’s overall health, and we make dining a true point of emphasis when it comes to the care we provide. We can help with everything that goes into creating nutritious, fulfilling meals — from assisting with grocery shopping, to leading meal prep, to simply helping your loved one enjoy their time with a friendly, familiar face.
We don’t look at cooking for our clients as a chore, but a privilege — an amazing opportunity to connect and learn more about their lifetime’s worth of stories. If you have a loved one that could benefit from regular home-cooked meals and company, we’d be more than happy to help. Get in touch online using our convenient contact form, or give us a call at 866-910-9020 to get the conversation started!