Malnutrition is a serious health concern for seniors. Across the country, millions of older adults go without the essential carbohydrates, vitamins, proteins, healthy fats, nutrients, and proteins they need to truly thrive.
Have you ever heard the phrase “you are what you eat”? As it turns out, there’s more than a grain of truth there! Proper nutrition is one of the biggest keys to better overall health, for people of all ages. Eating well is essential for helping your body recover from injuries and illnesses, and perform everyday activities.
Common Reasons for Malnutrition In Seniors
Compared to other groups, elderly adults may be particularly susceptible to malnutrition, due to “a combination of physical, social and psychological issues,” as the Mayo Clinic explains.
For older adults, poor diet and malnourishment could be due to any number of underlying causes, including:
- Normal age-related changes. Over time, it is natural for older adults to experience some loss of appetite due to a changing metabolism, or small changes to their sense of taste and smell. This can make it more difficult to find a consistent routine for healthy eating.
- Chronic illness. Some illnesses can impact the way the body processes nutrients. Chronic inflammation, pain, or digestive issues can also make eating seem less pleasurable.
- Medications. Many medications can suppress the appetite, or impact the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
- Difficulty eating. Seniors may have difficulty chewing, swallowing, or handling tableware.
- Depression. Feelings of depression can cause people to lose interest in things they once loved, including cooking and eating. Depression is all-too-common among seniors, and may be brought on by “grief, loneliness, failing health, lack of mobility and other factors,” as the Mayo Clinic notes.
- Limited mobility. Seniors who find it painful or difficult to get around may stay out of the kitchen altogether, causing them to avoid cooking. They may even avoid going to the fridge or pantry for a snack.
- Behavioral or cognitive changes. Dementia and other forms of memory loss can make it harder for seniors to remember to eat, shop for groceries, or develop positive food-related habits.
- Social withdrawal or isolation. Many people see eating as a social activity. The prospect of having to dine alone can make eating seem less appealing.
The Health Effects of Malnutrition
For seniors, malnourishment can come with some serious long-term health concerns, including:
- Weakened immune system. Without proper nutrition, the immune system can’t operate at its best, making seniors more susceptible to illnesses and infections.
- Slower healing. Wounds might heal more slowly, making minor cuts and scratches a more serious concern.
- Decreased mobility and strength. As the National Council on Aging (NCOA) explains, poor nutrition can impact a senior’s muscles and bones, leading to poor posture, decreased strength, and less flexibility. This can make it harder “to do everyday tasks like walking, dressing, and bathing.”
- Higher risk of falls. Falls are one of the biggest health concerns among the elderly. As the Mayo Clinic explains, malnutrition can cause “muscle weakness and decreased bone mass,” which increases the likelihood of suffering serious falls and fractures.
- Increased risk for hospitalizations. Seniors who go without proper nutrition are more likely to require hospitalization, according to a report from the Mayo Clinic.
- Harm to internal organs. As the NCOA explains, poor nutrition can impact a senior’s eyesight, and harm their organs. For instance, malnourishment can cause the kidneys to overwork and “affect their ability to function,” which can lead to “dehydration, joint pain, and heart issues.”
What Can Family Caregivers Do to Help?
As a loving and supportive family member to an aging adult, it can be difficult to see the senior in your life lose weight or experience health problems as a result of malnutrition. It can also take a toll seeing your loved one skip meals, give up their love of cooking, or come up with excuses to avoid eating.
What can you do to help your senior loved one avoid malnutrition? Here are five strategies to consider:
1.) Keep an Eye On Your Loved One
One of the most important first steps you can take is to watch out for your loved one, and notice any changes to their health, diet, or lifestyle. The Mayo Clinic encourages family caregivers to monitor their loved ones’ weight, observe their eating habits, and keep track of their medications.
Keep a lookout to see if your parent is eating well enough, and take note if you notice any worrying signs, such as sudden weight loss or constant fatigue. If you notice any major changes or have concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to a medical professional with any questions. A doctor can provide a reasonable course of action, which may include nutritional supplements, changing up your loved one’s medications, or finding ways to help them get more exercise.
2.) Make Meals a Social Event
One of the most powerful things you can do to help your loved one eat may be to make mealtimes a social activity. Dine with your loved one as often as possible. For those times when you can’t be there, don’t be afraid to reach out to a senior companion to step in. A senior companion can help your elderly loved one shop, prepare, and eat nutritious meals, with a side of friendly company.
The benefits of this small change can be enormous. Reports suggest that seniors take longer to dine and report eating more nutritiously when dining with companions, compared to eating alone.
3.) Focus on Flavorful, Nutrient-Dense Foods
Making some dietary swaps can have a huge, positive impact on your senior loved one’s health. Family Doctor offers this recommendation:
“The best foods are those that are full of nutrients, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Help your loved one limit his or her intake of solid fats, sugars, alcoholic beverages, and salt. Suggest ways to replace less healthy foods with healthier choices.”
Look for healthy seasonal foods to keep things fresh, and don’t be afraid to ask your loved one what they like and dislike. If your senior loved one is on a limited diet, Family Doctor also recommends using “herbs and spices” to “help restore flavor to bland foods,” without relying too heavily on salt or sugar.
4.) Find Ways to Make Mealtimes Easier
If settling into a dining routine is difficult for your loved one, there are lots of strategies you can use to make eating feel easier:
- Make the senior an active part of the meal planning and menu writing process.
- Have lots of healthy, accessible snacks on hand for eating between meals.
- Help cut down on distractions by making the eating area quiet. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends turning off the TV and radio, while the Orlando Sentinel encourages family members to “refrain from interrupting [the meal] using cell phones and other technology.”
- Make food senior-friendly by serving just one course at a time rather than loading a plate; cutting food into small, bite-size pieces; and making sure that foods are soft enough to eat. If your loved one has difficulty with silverware, focus on healthy finger foods, or look into specialty flatware for older adults. Be patient, and don’t rush mealtimes.
5.) Encourage Physical Activity
Helping your loved one stay active is an important way to help them remain healthy and enjoy life. It’s also a way to promote healthier eating habits and proper nutrition, according to the Mayo Clinic. Physical activity can help strengthen the bones and muscles, helping to counterbalance some of the health challenges that come with malnutrition. At the same time, exercise can help stimulate the appetite and improve digestion.
Caring for an Elderly Loved One? Companions for Seniors Can Help
At Companions for Seniors, we know how much your family means to you — and we’re here to help you take care of the people who took care of you. We’re always ready to step in and give support to the elderly, in whatever ways they need — while also giving family caregivers the chance to take some much-needed respite.
Our mission is simple: We help seniors live independently and with dignity in the comfort of their own home by empowering them to lead an active and enriched lifestyle, connecting them with their community, and nurturing meaningful relationships.
Our professionally trained and bonded companions can be there for your senior family in many different ways, from helping with activities of daily living, to running errands, to just spending some quality one-on-one time playing games or sharing a meal together. Our companions understand the enormous impact that mealtimes can have on a senior’s overall health and well-being, and we make nutritious, nourishing meals a point of emphasis when it comes to the care we provide.
Have any questions? Want to talk about your loved one’s unique needs? We’re here to listen. Get in touch online or give us a call today at 866-910-9020 to get the conversation started!