Proper nutrition is vital to your parent for maintaining health, retaining and building bone mass and, importantly, to enable medications to work effectively in the body -- and possibly with fewer side effects.
But, what if Mom or Dad won't eat whether properly, or won't eat enough? This creates an added challenge to you as caregiver. There may be valid reasons that your parent may shy away from dining. As the caregiver, you want to uncover the reasons why your parent is not eating, and try to address the underlying issues. Here are 10 reasons why seniors sometimes don't eat properly, according to the National Institutes of Health and its National Institute on Aging, plus augmented in one-on-one-interviews of professional caregivers.
1. Reduction in Senses of Smell and Taste
Dining involves many senses: aromas, colors and tastes in one's mouth; but many mature adults experience a lessening of the senses of smell and sense of taste in their aging process. There is a reduction in the experience that, in turn, lessens the personal desire for food. There is no magic pill to restore full senses of smell and taste.
As caregiver and chief cook, you can alter your recipes, switching from typical spices used in the past or as used by your parent in his or her own cooking, to herbs and spices with a bit more zing, and that introduce a new, added flavor to the dish.
2. Reduction in Sense of Sight
Cataracts and other conditions in the eyes can reduce your parent's visual perception of the meal servings, thereby reducing the image to "blah."
You can easily enhance the visual representation by increasing the food colors on the plate, separating them so that the colors are defined and easily perceived. Consider a main course with a colorful topping, a multi-colored salad, red potatoes, or orange carrots. Of course, vary the plate presentation by the day, that is, unless your parent really responds to one or two of your designer presentations. In this way you can reach effectively through to the remaining sense of vision.
Some medications have side effects that can change your parent's sense of taste or make her or him less hungry. Ask your parent's doctor if the prescribed medications or medical treatments are causing loss of appetite, bad taste or no flavor. The physician may be able to substitute with a different medication, or prescribe an added medication to correct the problem.
A side effect of many prescription drugs is constipation, a most uncomfortable condition where the patient claims to have no room left for additional food. The first step to solution is to reduce the incidence of constipation.
Consider increasing the amount of water your parent drinks throughout the day. With the proper diet and nutrition, the water will help clear the digestion system and, therefore, the volume of food retained in the stomach.
Consider increasing the percentage of food that will actually help the functioning of your parent's elimination system.
5. Problems with Chewing
If your parent has trouble chewing, he or she may have a teeth or gum problem or, if wearing dentures, the appliances may need to be adjusted. Advise your Mom or Dad's dentist about the chewing problem so that the specialist can check and correct the teeth, gums or dentures.
Chewing problems can often be resolved by eating softer foods. This can be resolved by replacing raw vegetables and fresh fruits with cooked vegetables or juices. Good nutrition can also be found in foods like applesauce and canned peaches or other fruits.
Ground or shredded meats are typically easy to chew or, in lieu of meat, consider soft foods such as cooked, dry beans, eggs, tofu, tuna fish and such.
6. Dining Alone
A meal is often enjoyed more when the event is shared with another person or a group.
Try to share at least one of the meals each day with your parent so you can visit, talk about a new or adjusted recipe, or discuss events and outings.
Recruit other family members, friends and neighbors to join Mom or Dad regularly for lunch or dinner. Recommend that they visit with your parent on any subject other than illness or limitation, and that they ask questions to help Mom or Dad retain and even expand mental agility and ability. Anticipating the visit will surely entice your parent the dining table.
Research local "meal events," such as lunch at the Senior Center. The meal will be healthy, and your parent can visit with other mature adults in a communal setting. Your local Area Agency on Aging can provide the sites and contact information, plus if volunteer drivers or specialized transit services are available for transportation.
7. Lack of Knowledge/Motivation
Draw Mom or Dad into the plan: "Mom/Dad, if we can make sure you have proper nutrition, we can reduce the side effects of your medication; we can help your medications work better; you will probably feel better; plus we can celebrate our mutual life together for far longer. Will you buy into the best plan?"
If your parent understands the vital role of nutrition in her or his life, and agrees with the approach, you have a partner for all the right reasons.
In this step, offer a positive comment at least once each day to your parent that "with your proper nutrition, we have taken another giant step forward in your health and independence."
When your parent adheres to your daily healthful nutrition program, treat her or him to lunch or dinner in a restaurant to enhance the dining experience. The meal will probably be prepared and seasoned differently than your own recipe. Continue to focus on the healthy foods in the diet program.
Dining out will also give you a break from your kitchen chores.
9. Unwillingness to Cook
If you can't prepare all the meals, call for help. There may be a Meals on Wheels program for homebound older adults available in your community. This program prepares hot and healthy dishes that conform to the National Institutes of Health nutrition guidelines, and delivers them daily. Your local Area Agency on Aging will have details and contact information.
An alternative, particularly if your parent lives elsewhere in the country, is to order five to seven fresh gourmet quality meals per week delivered to Mom or Dad by a firm such as Magic Kitchen. Each week the company delivers the flash frozen meals in a single shipment for your parent or helper to stash in the freezer, to be withdrawn one each day. Your parent then only needs to heat the meal as recommended, and then dine in style.
The average meal program cost ranges from $58 per week for seven daily meals, to $116 per week for two meals each day. Pricing could be higher depending on your selection of side dishes and/or desserts.
10. The Last Resort if Your Elderly Mom or Dad Still Won't Eat
Proper nutrition is vital for your parent. If all of the above fail to work, seek the counsel of your parent's physician. Forced feeding may be the only alternative, and the doctor may direct your parent to a hospital for forced feeding combined with examinations to determine if he or she has any physical reason for declining food, and then treating or correcting the cause.
As caregiver, your nutrition mission is important. You can, indeed, ensure that your Mom or Dad is in the best possible and functional health.
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.