Why Seniors Refuse to Eat and What You Can Do About It

61 Comments

Proper nutrition is vital to a healthy life at any age. Many seniors tend to eat less as their metabolism slows and nutritional needs change, but what if Mom or Dad won't eat properly or hardly eats at all? Family caregivers are often faced with this challenge at some point when providing care.

Some seniors may simply refuse to consume anything but sweets, but there a number of other more serious reasons that a loved one shies away from dining. Below are seven common reasons why older individuals may lose interest in food and what can be done to address these issues.

Reasons Why Seniors Don't Eat Properly

  1. Reduction in Senses of Smell and Taste
    Eating involves many senses. The sense of smell is very closely tied to our ability to taste and directly influences our appetites. Many adults experience a reduction in their senses of smell and taste as they age. This dulling of the senses greatly affects how seniors perceive food and can actually lessen their feelings of hunger.
    To help enhance a senior’s dining experience, a caregiver can alter recipes to include more flavorful spices, herbs and vegetables. For example, using aromatic techniques when beginning dishes creates deeper, more flavorful foundations for many different cuisines and, of course, produces mouthwatering aromas in the process.
    Adding sugar, salt, and fat to a senior’s diet is an easy but unhealthy method of intensifying the flavors of their food. Instead, opt for fresh herbs, a squeeze of citrus, spices, extracts, and different cooking techniques to boost flavor and aroma profiles.
  2. Low Vision
    Cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and other eye conditions can alter a senior’s visual perception of their meals. If they cannot clearly see what is being served, they are likely to lose interest in food, especially when combined with reductions in taste and smell.
    To enhance the visual representation of a senior’s meals, make a point of using healthy, colorful foods, separating each part of the meal so they are clearly defined on the plate, and serving meals on dishes that contrast with the color of the foods being served. If possible, vary the plate presentations from day to day to keep mealtimes interesting.
  3. Medications
    Some medications, such as Alzheimer’s drugs, some anti-depressants, and stimulants, have side effects that can affect a person’s eating habits. Ask your loved one’s doctor or pharmacist if any of their prescriptions or medical treatments could be causing a direct reduction in appetite or other related symptoms like constipation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bad tastes in the mouth, or dry mouth. The physician may be able to adjust their regimen to minimize these negative effects or recommend working with a dietitian to assist in a non-pharmaceutical intervention.
  4. Constipation
    Slower digestion is often a side effect of the aging process as well as many prescription drugs. One of the uncomfortable symptoms of constipation is a feeling of fullness, which can prevent seniors from eating properly. Consider helping your loved one increase their fiber and fluid intake and encourage them to engage in physical activity as often as they are able. Even a leisurely walk can help get things moving. Try to avoid using laxatives, which are not intended for long-term use and can actually make the situation worse. If the problem persists, speak with a physician about additional steps to take.
  5. Oral Health Issues
    If a senior appears to have a difficult time chewing, they may have a problem with their teeth, gums or dentures. The shape of the mouth and jaw can change steadily over time. Ill-fitting dentures and other oral devices can become loose or uncomfortable or even cause painful sores and irritation. Regular dental checkups can prevent serious problems from developing and enable a senior to continue eating normally.
    Foods that are soft, moist and cut into smaller pieces are easier to consume for those who are experiencing oral discomfort. For example, serve vegetables cooked instead of raw. Rather than a steak or pork chop, opt for fish, recipes that include ground meat, or cuts that can be cooked until tender. Serving meals with healthy sauces can moisten ingredients and facilitate chewing and swallowing as well.
  6. Dining Alone
    Meals are often enjoyed more when they are shared with other people. Many seniors grew up with sit-down family dinners where loved ones would discuss the events of the day. Mealtimes can become lonely for seniors who no longer have a significant other to dine and converse with.
    If possible, try to share at least one meal each day with your parent. Recruit other family members, friends and neighbors to join them regularly for lunch, dinner, or even tea and an afternoon snack. Look for local “meal events” at places like senior centers, churches and other community organizations. Your local Area Agency on Aging can provide details and information on whether volunteer drivers or specialized transit services are available to assist with transportation.
  7. Unwillingness to Cook
    If a senior is unwilling or unable to cook their own nutritious meals, it can take a toll on their health and eating habits. Many family caregivers opt to cook for their loved ones, but this can be difficult to juggle for those who work, have their own families and/or live some distance away. Other options include Meals on Wheels and paid meal delivery services like Silver Cuisine and Magic Kitchen.
    In-home care is another alternative that can provide a myriad of benefits. Home care is unique in that it offers companionship, meal preparation and light housekeeping services for seniors in the comfort of their own homes. Professional caregivers can even help feed clients who have difficulty with this activity of daily living.

Proper nutrition is vital for a senior’s health and independence. If addressing the issues above fails to yield results, consult your loved one’s physician. The doctor may recommend seeing a specialist to deduce why eating is such a struggle or working with a registered dietitian to find alternative methods for getting your loved one the nutrition they need.


Leonard J. Hansen is the nation's pioneer in writing and editing for and about mature adults. He has received 106 professional awards and fellowships for his creative work.

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61 Comments

For many seniors, including end or late stage dementia, whether to "part their teeth" may be the last control or choice they can exercise! I often find that seniors feel that eating is only worth it if something tastes good to them which doesn't always agree with doctor recommended or caregiver approved diet plans!
Eating is the very first and often the last pleasure life offers us (as soon as we are born they slap us on the rear to make us scream then immediately stuff something in our mouths to shut us up, usually food right!?!). At some stage of life isn't it okay for a person to either stop eating or to only eat what they want?
There is a difference between an elder seeking to end a painful and suffering-filled life by stopping intake of food, and an elder having a poor appetite and finding it a chore to eat. I agree with Brandy that she did the right thing. But in the case of the woman I care for, it would be wrong of me not to make her food appetizing and delightful. I absolutely love hearing her little halting voice say "Oh honey this looks beautiful!" over the tray I bring to her. Colors, textures, arrangement - all very important. And then I pray over the food with her, and we eat together. She's 90, and maybe she doesn't have a lot of time left, but as for me - I will make every meal a total pleasure as long as she can eat! :-)
One other thing that might help, Add protein powder to jello when you make it. Of course this will only work if she likes jello. You could add fruit to the jello as well
Susan