May 13, 2020

Eating well is a crucial part of living a happy, healthy, and full life, for people of all ages. Yet for seniors, cooking and eating can pose serious challenges — and the problem often starts in the kitchen.

If your loved one’s pantry and refrigerator are full of expired packages and unappetizing or spoiled leftovers, it may be high time to take action. 

For older adults, disorganization, messiness, and hoarding can often be a sign of an underlying condition or problem — from loneliness, to chronic pain, to mental changes such as dementia. In time, not having a clean and tidy kitchen can lead to more severe health problems. A kitchen full of expired or inedible food makes it more likely that a senior will suffer from food poisoning or illness. Not having food on hand can also contribute to malnutrition — a serious and all-too-common threat to seniors’ health and well-being.

Ready to dive in and sort through your elderly loved one’s pantry, cupboard, and fridge? Let’s take a look at why keeping your senior loved one’s kitchen organized and clean is so important, and what you can do to help out. 

When Eating Becomes a Challenge

As a family caregiver, helping a senior loved one to eat nutritious and satisfying meals is often going to be a high priority — and, unfortunately, a major point of difficulty. 

Malnutrition is a serious health problem for older adults. Over time, seniors often experience decreased appetites, or suffer from health conditions that make it less comfortable and pleasant to eat, including gastrointestinal disorders; side effects from medications; or even oral health problems. 

In many cases, seniors also face physical, mental, and emotional changes that make it harder to prepare and eat healthy, nourishing meals. Some seniors may simply forget to cook for themselves, or find it emotionally daunting to have to eat alone on a regular basis. For others with difficulty moving, it can be hard to work in the kitchen. Many seniors are afraid of suffering a fall on slippery kitchen floors. For others, it can be exhausting and even painful to stoop over the oven, lift heavy pots and pans, or reach into the back of their cupboard. 

As a result, many seniors also let the important task of organizing and cleaning their kitchen pantry and refrigerator fall by the wayside. 

Could a Messy Kitchen Be a Sign of Something More?

There are many different reasons why a senior may let their fridge, cupboards, and pantries get out of hand. For some, it may be physically difficult to sort through their cans and boxes alone, especially if they need to reach deep into a refrigerator or grab from a high shelf. For other older adults, it’s simply a low priority, one that is easy to put out of mind — especially when they rarely use their kitchen or cook for themselves. 

In other cases, a strong desire to hold onto items (including food) can be a sign of a mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety. Many seniors dealing with loneliness and social isolation may find it difficult to get motivated or take up household tasks, including cleaning and organizing. As the resource AgingCare explains, hoarding can also be a byproduct of anger, fear, and confusion — often in reaction to other perceived changes in a person’s life. Holding onto things can give seniors a sense of control and independence, and create feelings of comfort. 

These tendencies can also emerge in seniors experiencing memory loss, including dementia and Alzheimer’s. As the experts from the University of North Carolina explain for WebMD:

“Many people with Alzheimer’s disease collect or hide things… Someone who hoards may also hide things, such as food in drawers with clothes.” 

For seniors living with dementia, this tendency to hoard and hide may come as a way to feel more secure and try to deal with scary changes. Many older adults also have an ingrained, cultural habit of holding onto things for later, when they may need them again — a trait that can be amplified due to dementia. 

Organizing the Pantry and Refrigerator: What Family Caregivers Can Do to Help

As a family caregiver, it can be upsetting to walk into your loved one’s kitchen to find rotting food, messy countertops, and shelves full of packages with expiration dates long in the past. 

Looking for a way to sort through the mess, get organized, and make things easier for your loved one moving forward? Here are a few things to keep in mind… 

Be Patient, Empathetic, and Respectful as You Help Your Loved One

First and foremost, be prepared to meet resistance from your elderly loved one. The senior may lash out in anger or embarrassment, and see your offers to help as an overreach or a sign that you’re trying to take away their independence. The senior may argue against throwing out certain items, or come up with excuses as to why something should stick around even if it’s clearly past the point of use. 

Whether the senior reacts with anger, fear, or sadness, be patient and empathetic, and put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. Try to be reasonable, and avoid shouting matches and arguments if you can. If it helps, consider bringing in a third party who can help mediate, such as a professional caregiver or a friend that your loved one respects. Be gentle and mindful of your loved one’s feelings, and try to understand their perspective. 

Getting a sense of why their cabinets and fridge have gotten this way can give you a better understanding of how to move forward, and what steps you can take to really help — whether that means getting them social support from a companion, or talking with a doctor about how to best manage any uncomfortable mental or physical challenges that your loved one may be facing. 

Cleaning and Decluttering

Tackling an overfilled pantry or a fridge full of rotten food can be a daunting task. For your comfort and safety, wear gloves and a facemask, and stock up on trash bags that you can seal properly. Try to bring as much ventilation and fresh air into the space as you can by opening a window or running a fan. 

To keep things streamlined, work your way methodically through one storage area at a time — for example, start in the pantry, then move to the cupboards, and then the fridge. In each area, work in an organized way; throwing things away shelf-by-shelf or in batches. Avoid taste-tasting or smelling anything, as this may get you sick. Keep in mind that even if a food item hasn’t expired, it may be contaminated by something that has gone bad. 

Once you’ve thrown away expired foods and pantry items, give each surface a deep cleaning. Before putting anything back or buying new supplies, wipe down the bare shelves with a disinfectant, and sanitize the handles and doors to the pantry and fridge. You may also look into solutions that can help get rid of any lingering odors, including DIY “odor neutralizers,” which you can often make with household items like vinegar, essential oils, or baking soda. 

Getting Organized

Once you’ve helped your loved one get rid of clutter, talk with them about ways that you can make their refrigerator and pantry easier to use moving forward. Some ideas may include: 

  • Rearranging shelves, to make sure that everything the senior needs is easily within reach 
  • Adding space-saving organization solutions, like a lazy susan or a hanging basket
  • Creating a system to label foods and pantry goods. For example, you could add a piece of tape with the date that you purchased the item and the date it should be used by, or create a color-coded system that is easy for your loved one to remember
  • Setting regular alarms or reminders — including simple notices of when to eat, when to take medications, or when to schedule a time to clean out the fridge again
  • Bringing on a professional companion, who can assist with meal prep and routine housekeeping on a regular basis

Companions for Seniors: We’re Here to Help

At Companions for Seniors, we make food and mealtimes a key point of emphasis when it comes to the care we provide. Depending on your loved one’s needs, a companion can step in and help out in many different ways – from sharing meals with your senior loved one, to helping them with grocery shopping and other errands, to cooking with them, to helping them keep their kitchen and dining room clean and tidy. 

Our companions don’t look at cooking for our clients as a chore, but a privilege. Shopping, cooking, and dining all present an amazing chance to connect with seniors, and help enrich their lives. 

When our caregivers enjoy meals with their clients, they talk about their day, share stories, and, most importantly, forge a meaningful bond. We often hear that these shared meals and activities become highlights for not only our client, but for our caregivers as well.

If you have an elderly loved one that could use assistance in the kitchen, we are here to help. Have any questions? Want to get in touch? Don’t hesitate to reach out through our online contact form today, or give us a call at (866) 910-9020 to get the conversation started.