How to Help an Elderly Adult Who Has Difficulty Eating

Helping a Senior Loved One Who Has Difficulty Eating

In Health by Companions for Seniors

Your dad could once put away a steak dinner in no time; now he barely seems to pick at his Sunday meal. Your mom once spent hours in the kitchen; now, she’s reluctant to even go in and fix herself a snack. If the aging adult in your life is having difficulty eating, know that you’re not alone — and that there are lots of steps you can take to help!

Over time, older adults often experience problems with eating, due to any number of causes. Cognitive changes can make it harder for some seniors to remember mealtimes; in other cases, changes to their senses of smell and taste may make eating feel like less of a priority for seniors. Some people avoid the kitchen because they have issues with mobility or motor skills, and find cooking dangerous or stressful. Meanwhile, many medications and chronic illnesses can act as appetite suppressants, as can mental health challenges like chronic stress or social withdrawal. 

Whatever the causes may be, we know how scary it can be to watch as your senior loved one faces difficulties with eating. Malnutrition is a serious health concern among the elderly, and is a major contributing factor to hospitalization for older adults. 

Let’s look at some common eating problems and challenges for elderly adults — and what you can do to help in each situation as a family caregiver! Here’s where to get started if your senior loved one has… 

Difficulty Remembering to Eat

Many older adults have trouble remembering when or how often to eat. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other cognitive changes can cause seniors to forget mealtimes; in other cases, living along without a schedule can make it easy for lunch and dinner to simply pass on by. 

To help make sure your loved one keeps up with meals, consider setting up an alarm system or a calendar notification, reminding your elderly loved one when (and even what) to eat. You can also check in by phone or send a text message at mealtimes. 

You might also consider working with your senior loved one to meal prep in advance, and create ready-to-eat portions that they can turn to throughout the week. Similarly, you can make things easier by helping your loved one organize their fridge and pantry. Get rid of expired food, and sort or label foods as snacks, breakfasts, dinners, and so on. This makes it easier for the older adult to “grab and go.” The less work the senior has to do to get the food ready, the more likely they are to actually eat. 

Finally, consider bringing in a senior companion. A professional companion or caregiver can help keep an eye on your loved one to make sure they’re eating well. Meanwhile, the companion can offer hands-on assistance with food preparation and service, helping to ensure that the older adult always has access to the nourishing meals they need.

Difficulty Chewing and Swallowing

If your loved one seems to have trouble eating, or is nervous around certain food and drinks, it may be because of an underlying medical condition. For example, difficulty with swallowing — also known as dysphagia — is a common health concern among seniors, impacting up to 15% of adults aged 65 or older.

Don’t hesitate to work with your elderly loved one and their healthcare team to determine if there’s a problem. For example, a dentist may be able to help with common oral health issues that can impact chewing and swallowing — such as lesions, dry mouth, or ill-fitting dentures. Similarly, your loved one’s primary care physician and pharmacist may be able to help determine if their medications are having any unwanted side effects. 

Once you’ve rooted out the problem, you can figure out ways to make meals more senior-friendly. For example, many seniors who have difficulty with chewing and swallowing may prefer soft foods like soups, stews, and porridges. In other cases, seniors may benefit from eating smaller portions, cut up into bite-sized pieces to make them easier to eat. 

Difficulty Using Silverware

Trembling hands, poor vision, or loss of motor skills can make it a lot harder for older adults to use flatware. What’s more, many seniors are embarrassed about their difficulties — and become even more reluctant to dig in, especially when eating with friends and family. 

To help make things easier, look into senior-friendly flatware options. There are lots of products out there designed specifically for use among elderly adults or people with poor mobility. Many seniors may also benefit from having finger foods that are easy to eat. 

Studies have also shown that older adults with reduced vision or cognitive changes may benefit from colorful, senior-friendly serving dishes. For example, one study found that Alzheimer’s patients consumed 25% more food when served with red plates compared to those that ate from white plates.

It’s also hard to overstate the importance of simply being patient, gentle, and empathetic as a family caregiver. Many adults are ashamed of their challenges or difficulties. Don’t judge your loved one for being a sloppy eater, and be reassuring and understanding when accidents or messes happen. The more comfortable and supported your loved one feels, the more willing they’ll be to actually eat. 

Loss of Appetite

What if your loved one simply doesn’t feel like eating? While some loss of appetite is a natural byproduct of aging, a serious decrease can be a “yellow flag” that it may be time to reach out for help. Often, you may need to work with your loved one’s healthcare team to find the cause — which could be the side effects of a medication; digestive problems; or even a mental health concern like depression, anxiety, or loneliness. A medical professional may recommend an appropriate course of action based on the circumstances, including appetite stimulants. 

To help make sure your loved one’s nutritional needs are met, consider preparing and serving smaller portions of nutrient-dense foods on a regular basis. You could also look into dietary supplements, or liquid options such as smoothies or bone broth. If your loved one has lost their appetite due to a loss of taste or smell, look for senior-friendly spices that can amp up their favorite foods, such as ginger, turmeric, or black pepper. 

Meanwhile, remember that there are lots of natural ways to promote a healthier appetite, including proper hydration and regular exercise. 

Difficulty Eating Alone

In a prominent study, seniors who live alone cite “lack of companionship” as one of the single biggest problems they face at mealtimes. About one in five seniors say that they “feel lonely when eating alone” most or some of the time, and about 20% of older adults who regularly eat alone “have at least four warning signs of poor nutritional health.” 

On the flip side, older adults who are able to regularly share meals with others report that they take longer to eat, make healthier choices, and experience higher levels of happiness and satisfaction. 

If your senior loved one struggles to cook or eat when they’re doing it by themselves, look for ways to make mealtimes a more social event. Try to share meals with your older loved ones as regularly as possible. When you can’t be there in person, consider checking in by phone or video call. 

Above all, look into bringing on a professional companion or caregiver. In addition to helping with food preparation and service, a friendly companion can sit down with your loved one during mealtimes, giving them someone to chat and share with as they dine. This can make mealtimes feel much less intimidating — and a whole lot more fun. 

Trouble Focusing at Mealtimes

Many older adults get overstimulated easily. Having lots of distractions in the environment can make it harder to focus, communicate, or even pay attention to the meal in front of them. 

To help make mealtimes a more calming and nourishing experience, think of ways to cut down on distractions. Turn off the TV or radio; close your laptop; and keep phones put away for the duration of the meal. 

At the same time, many older adults prefer a more simple and straightforward dining experience. Get rid of clutter and obstacles on the dining table, and consider bringing out individual courses one at a time, rather than loading up the table with lots of serving dishes and platters, which can feel overwhelming. 

Be patient, and try not to rush through mealtimes. Create an environment in which your senior loved one knows what to expect, so they can feel more confident and relaxed. 

Difficulty With Food Shopping

Preparing hearty, nutritious, and satisfying meals starts with stocking up on the right ingredients. Unfortunately, going grocery shopping and running errands can often be difficult for the elderly — especially those without reliable access to transportation. 

To help make running errands easier and more accessible, consider hiring a companion for your elderly loved one. A companion can help provide reliable, safe transportation services, so your loved one can go out into the community and shop for the supplies they need. At every step of the way, the companion can make this experience safer and more social by carrying bags, helping open doors, and providing friendly support. 

To supplement the grocery shopping, look into food delivery services in your area. In addition to meal delivery programs aimed specifically at the elderly, take some time to research all of the local delivery apps and meal kit services available near you. You may be surprised by how many options there are for providing your loved one with warm, nourishing meals in the comfort and safety of home. 

Meanwhile, remember that all of these prepared meals and individual ingredients need somewhere to go! Working with your loved one, make it a point to regularly clean out the refrigerator and organize their cabinets and pantry. 

Food, Nutrition, and Quality of Life: How Companions for Seniors Can Help

Food is one of the cornerstones of our culture, and one of the most important keys to our overall health and quality of life. Unfortunately, we also know that helping your elderly loved one go grocery shopping and prepare meals is usually more easily said than done. 

Members of the Sandwich Generation live busy lives, caring for kids and seniors at the same time. Countless adults live too far from their parents and older family to make shared mealtimes a nightly event. 

Fortunately, we are always here and happy to help!  

At Companions for Seniors, we know how much food and family truly mean — and know what it takes to help you take care of the people who took care of you. 

We’re always ready to step in and give support to elderly adults in the Chicago area — while also giving family caregivers the chance to enjoy some much-needed and well-deserved respite.

Our mission is simple: We help seniors live independently and with dignity in the comfort of their own homes 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 simply spending some quality one-on-one time playing games or sharing a meal. Our companions understand the enormous impact that a social mealtime can have on a senior’s overall health, and we make food and nutrition important points of emphasis in the care we provide. 

Have any questions? Want to talk about your family’s unique needs? Don’t hesitate to get in touch online or give us a call at 866-910-9020 to get the conversation started today!