Whether your senior loved one has a serious taste for sweets or a lifelong love of veggies, it’s important to help them watch what they eat.
Malnutrition is a major health concern for the elderly. Recently, one major study found that about 20 percent of seniors who live alone have at least four warning signs of poor nutritional health. Another report suggests that one in three seniors who gets admitted to the hospital is experiencing malnutrition — and that complications from poor nutrition can drive up hospital costs by more than 300%.
As a family caregiver, you may have food on your mind a lot of the time. Across generations and cultures, food and mealtimes are special, even sacred. Thanks to a growing body of research, we know how intimately eating well is connected to living a healthy life, for people of all ages.
However, it can also be hard to take on the responsibility of helping your loved one eat a fulfilling, nutritious diet — especially if they’re having difficulty eating, or experiencing a health condition that may impact their appetite. It can also feel challenging and confusing not knowing where to start when it comes to all things diets and nutrition. Is your loved one eating enough, or focusing on the right types of foods? Are they getting the right vitamins and nutrients? Are the foods they’re eating interacting with medications they’re taking, or affecting any long-term health conditions they may be dealing with?
That’s a lot to put on your plate! Fortunately, there are many resources out there that can help you identify your senior loved one’s unique nutritional needs — and help serve meals and snacks that will leave them feeling happy, healthy, and satisfied.
Why Seniors May Have Different Nutritional Needs
If you’ve ever wandered through an apple orchard or raspberry field, then you know that no two delicious fruits are ever going to look exactly alike. The same goes for people, and their dietary and nutritional needs.
This is particularly true for seniors, who may have different needs, requirements, or personal challenges that can make healthy eating more difficult. When you think about helping your senior loved one eat more nutritiously, it’s important to think of their overall health, and how different factors may be impacting what they should eat, how much they should eat, and even when they should eat. Older adults may have unique nutritional needs due to any number of causes, including:
- Difficulty eating. A senior may have mobility issues that make it harder to feed themselves; they may also experience difficulties with chewing and swallowing.
- Age-related changes. Many older adults change their dietary habits because of physical changes. For example, a diminishing of their senses of smell and taste can make eating seem less enjoyable, or may cause them to seek out salty or sugary snacks, to compensate for their changing taste buds. Many older adults also experience a change in their metabolism, which can cause a decrease in appetite or make it harder to enjoy certain foods.
- Difficulty remembering to eat. Cognitive changes, such as dementia, can make it more difficult for seniors to remember to eat. Social changes can also impact how seniors eat. For example, they may overindulge to compensate for grief or depression. In other cases, seniors who feel isolated or anxious may avoid eating, or find it difficult to sit down for full meals.
- Chronic health conditions. Seniors’ dietary needs and restrictions may be impacted by conditions like diabetes, heart disease, or gastrointestinal conditions.
- Medications. Seniors may experience a loss of appetite due to medications they’re taking. Many older adults may also need to avoid certain food groups or ingredients, which may have a negative interaction with their medicines.
- Vitamin deficiencies. Your senior loved one may need to increase their intake of a specific vitamin or mineral, which wouldn’t be addressed with common, generic food guidelines. Vitamin D, for example, is essential for health, but most easily accrued through fortified foods and supplements.
How to Help Identify Your Senior Loved One’s Needs
When it comes to eating healthy, there are a lot of nuances and special considerations for seniors to keep in mind. As a family caregiver, what can you do to be considerate of your loved one’s preferences, while still making sure they get the delicious, filling food they need to stay healthy?
Here are some important steps you can take to identify and address your elderly loved one’s unique nutritional needs:
- Talk to them. If you notice that your senior loved one is losing weight or experiencing physical or emotional discomfort around food, don’t be afraid to gently open up a conversation. Addressing your loved one’s fears, preferences, ideas, and experiences can make it easier to get on the same page and come up with a plan for healthier eating.
- Go to a medical professional, dietitian, or nutritionist. Talking with an experienced healthcare provider or senior nutrition specialist can help set your family down the right path. Depending on their background and experience, a qualified expert can help identify nutrient or vitamin deficiencies a senior may be experiencing, recommend strategies and supplements, understand the impact of medications, and identify underlying health concerns, ranging from oral discomfort to gastrointestinal disorders.
- Explore resources and guidelines. There are lots of resources and expert-approved guidelines out there that can help you understand your senior’s unique needs. For example, the USDA has guidelines such as MyPlate, while the National Institute of Health offers research and recommendations known as the DASH diet. Similarly, the National Council on Aging (NCOA) offers shopping and nutrition guidelines that can be useful for older adults and caregivers. There are also many, many nutritional plans based around conditions that may be affecting the senior’s health. For example, the American Heart Association offers lots of guidance for heart-healthy eating, while American Diabetes Association has plans and approaches for diabetes-friendly meal planning.
Putting a Plan Into Action
While it’s important to understand and recognize that every senior’s nutritional needs and preferences will be unique, there are some key steps that can make it easier to shop for, prepare, and serve meals that will get them the nutrients they need — while helping give you back some peace of mind as a loving family caregiver.
- Involve your loved one in the meal-planning. Listen to your loved one’s thoughts and preferences. For example, if they have a nutrient-dense food that they love, look for ways to serve it as regularly as possible. If they would prefer to eat snacks throughout the day rather than waiting for one large meal, this is also something to think about. Engage with your loved one and make sure they feel included in these important decisions.
- Serve senior-friendly meals. Depending on your loved one’s needs, there are lots of ways to help make meals more senior-friendly. For example, if your loved one has trouble chewing, you could focus on serving soft foods, or making mashes, purees, or smoothies. If they have difficulty using flatware, you could focus on serving tasty, healthy finger foods.
- Make mealtimes social. Try to make eating a social, enjoyable event! Eat with your senior loved one as often as you can, and enlist friends, family, neighbors, or senior companions to join in. Studies show that seniors who eat with company tend to enjoy meals more, and even make healthier choices when they sit down to eat.
- Consider their lifestyle. Remember that food is just one part of a healthy lifestyle. Talk with a medical professional or senior care expert about other healthy changes that might benefit your loved one, including cutting down on bad habits like smoking; drinking more water; and getting more exercise and physical activity.
- Bring on an extra set of hands. For all those times when you cannot be there, a senior companion may be a great choice to step in and help! A senior companion can help provide your loved one with the support they need to live a healthy, enriched lifestyle. When it comes to all things food, a companion can help your loved one to shop for, prepare, and serve nutritious meals, while also providing friendly company to make sitting down to eat a fun, memorable daily event.
Have Any More Questions? Companions for Seniors Is Here to Help
Helping your aging loved one manager their health and well-being 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 step in and help! We are a home care company that helps seniors maintain a higher quality of life, while also providing respite and relief for family caregivers who may need additional support. 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 physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Our companions understand the enormous impact that a social mealtime can have on a senior’s overall health, and we make it a point of emphasis when it comes to the care we provide. We can help with everything from grocery shopping, to meal prep, to simply helping your loved one share a meal with a friendly, familiar face.
We don’t look at cooking for our clients as a chore, but a privilege — and an amazing chance 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 or give us a call at 866-910-9020 today to get the conversation started!