Your father once loved to dig into a heaping plate of food when he was younger. Now, he barely picks at what’s placed in front of him. Your mother was once enthusiastic about working in the kitchen; now, she barely seems to have the energy to lift a pan. If you’ve noticed that your elderly loved ones seem to be losing weight or giving up on food altogether as they grow older, you’re certainly not alone.
Malnutrition is a serious health concern among the elderly — and unexplained or unintentional weight loss is a major point of worry for many family caregivers.
Research suggests that about one in three seniors admitted to the hospital is experiencing malnutrition. Meanwhile, another major study found that one in five senior adults living alone shows at least four warning signs of poor nutritional health.
Weight loss is one of the biggest and most visible signs of malnutrition, and also one of the most concerning. As a loving family caregiver, it can be difficult to watch as a senior starts to grow more frail, or to see their clothes get baggier. It can be even more stressful if your senior loved one seems to be lacking energy or neglecting food.
While experts agree that some degree of weight loss is to be expected among older adults, significant or unexplainable weight loss can be scary to see — and may serve as an important “yellow flag” for family caregivers to note and monitor over time. Why? As geriatrician Leslie Kernisan, MD MPH explains, it is important to detect and evaluate weight loss and malnutrition for several key reasons:
- Weight loss is often caused by “underlying health problems which need to be diagnosed and managed”
- Malnutrition and weight loss can weaken older adults, and leave them “more vulnerable to additional illnesses and injuries” in the future
- Weight loss can be a powerful sign that an older person is impaired, or “otherwise needs more support with daily life,” such as the hands-on assistance of a professional companion
For seniors, unexplained or unexpected weight loss can stem from any number of causes, and may be a warning sign of serious underlying health issues that can dramatically impact a senior’s well-being and quality of life if left untreated, including:
- Lack of mobility. Seniors may stay out of the kitchen or avoid eating because they have trouble moving around or lifting cooking equipment.
- Mental health challenges. Weight loss is a common symptom of mental health conditions that the elderly may face, including loneliness, social isolation, depression, stress, and anxiety.
- Chronic illness or pain. Conditions such as thyroid disorders, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, infections, and different gastrointestinal disorders can lead to sudden and unexplained weight loss.
- Cognitive changes. Mental changes such as dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, can lead to seniors forgetting to cook or eat on a regular schedule, or cause difficulty with managing meal preparation.
- Adverse reactions to medication. Loss of appetite, dehydration, and weight loss can be common side effects of many medicines; these effects may also be caused by harmful interactions between different prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs.
- Oral health issues. Seniors may avoid eating if they are experiencing difficulty or pain with chewing and swallowing food, whether due to ill-fitting dentures, dry mouth, or increased sensitivity.
- Lifestyle challenges. Weight loss may ultimately be caused by personal challenges. For example, seniors may neglect proper nutrition if they have difficulty with shopping or getting to the store, or feel uncomfortable while dining alone.
Ways to Evaluate Weight Loss In the Elderly
So, what steps can family caregivers take to help monitor their loved ones’ health, look for weight loss, and get their senior family the help they need to live a full and enriched life?
Look for Warning Signs
One of the first and most important actions that you can take is to observe your senior loved one. While they may be reluctant to talk about their eating habits or acknowledge problems, there may still be some visible clues that they’re experiencing unwanted weight loss or malnourishment, including:
- Visible frailty
- Neglecting food
- Loose, poorly fitting clothes or jewelry
- Signs of physical weakness (such as needing to lean on furniture or walls for support)
- An untouched kitchen (Do they seem to be ignoring the supplies in their cupboard or fridge? Is there dust on their pots and pans?)
Lead a Routine Weigh In
While it may be an uncomfortable topic to broach, setting a regular routine for weighing your older loved ones can be an important step in establishing a baseline and observing any changes to their health over time. In a post on her site, Dr. Kernisan recommends checking and recording the senior’s weight at least once per month. Keep records of these weight checks on your computer or with a paper file, and be ready to provide this information to a doctor when necessary. You may also want to look into “smart” home devices that can make this process more streamlined, such as connected scales which can wirelessly transmit results to a smartphone app for easy recording and analysis.
Know the Questions to Ask
If you’re concerned about your loved one’s weight loss, it may help to start asking them questions that can help you get a fuller picture of the health and lifestyle challenges they may be facing. It helps to anticipate the questions that a doctor or dietitian might ask. The Cleveland Clinic offers a great list of questions for kicking off the conversation, as does Dr. Kernisan on her Better Health While Aging site.
Here are a few ideas to try:
- “Have you been noticing any changes in your eating habits?’
- “Are you taking any medications right now?”
- “Have you been exercising more lately?”
- “How often do you feel tired?”
- “Have you had any dental problems, or difficulty swallowing?”
- “Has anything been making you feel stressed lately?”
- “How would you rate your appetite on a scale of 1-10?”
- “What’s your usual plan for food shopping and meal prep?”
- “What would make mealtimes easier or more enjoyable?”
- “Have you noticed any worrisome symptoms lately, like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea vomiting, or any other signs of being sick?”
You can also encourage your loved one to take a nutritional self-assessment. You can find some useful examples here and here, courtesy of the Nestle Nutrition Institute and the Boston University School of Medicine.
Once you’ve gathered data by observing and speaking to your loved one, you can start to think about how you may take action. The most important step is to consult with your loved one’s healthcare provider. Their doctor may be able to determine the underlying cause of the weight loss, and make treatment suggestions that can help based on your senior loved one’s unique needs.
Based on the doctor’s findings, there may be some major ways you can help out as a family caregiver, such as
- Making mealtimes more social
- Assisting with meal preparation
- Encouraging physical activity
- Making meals more senior-friendly
- Helping your loved one understand and accommodate their nutritional needs
How Non-Medical Home Care Can Help
If your loved one could use some help with routine activities of daily living (ADLs), such as working in the kitchen or sitting down to meals, home care may be the right fit. Home care, provided by an experienced senior companion, can help give your elderly loved one the support they need to live a healthy, active, and independent life in the comfort and safety of home.
When it comes to food and nutrition, a companion can assist your senior loved one by:
- Helping provide assistance and transportation to go shopping or run errands
- Assisting with meal preparation and service
- Providing fun, friendly, and encouraging company at mealtimes
- Going out to eat on a regular basis
In addition, a professional caregiver can help keep an eye on your senior loved one when you cannot, including monitoring their medication and exercise regimens, and getting in touch if they start to notice any changes in your senior loved one’s appearance or daily habits.
In short? Home care can provide the senior in your life with all of the social and personal support they need to live a more full and enriched life. Whether your loved one is trying to adapt to new health challenges or could benefit from the company of a familiar face at mealtimes, home care may be just the right fit.
About Companions for Seniors
Helping your aging loved one take care of their health and well-being can be tricky, especially when you aren’t sure of the best way to take action or help out.
That’s where Companions for Seniors would love to step in and be your resource. 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 food and nutrition 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 empowering your loved one to share a meal with some pleasant company.
We don’t look at cooking or cleaning 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 help around the house, including 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.