By Emilee Seltzer
As people age, their diets may need to change, especially if their diets are not well-balanced. Generally, doctors will recommend a well-balanced diet for older adults, meaning that they should eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins and whole grains to maintain and improve overall health. According to Ruth Frechman, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, in addition to eating a healthful variety of foods, there are specific things a caregiver can incorporate into their their loved one's diet to boost his or her health.
Prepare Meals Rich in These Nutrients
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
The acids have been proven to reduce inflammation, which can cause heart disease, cancer and arthritis. They can be found in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola oil, and different types of fish. Your older relative should have foods rich in this nutrient twice per week. If this is impossible, check with their doctor to see if an Omega 3 supplement would be beneficial.
The need for calcium increases as people age. This is primarily to preserve bone health. One added benefit of calcium is that it helps to lower blood pressure. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults over the age of 50 get at least 1200 milligrams per day of calcium – equal to about four cups of fortified orange juice, dairy milk, or fortified non-dairy milks such as almond or soy. Leafy greens like kale and turnip greens are also great sources of absorbable calcium. Many people find it challenging to consume this much calcium per day by eating and drinking, so check with your loved one's doctor to see if he or she should take a calcium supplement.
Limit Sodium Content
For those with hypertension (high blood pressure) one of the most important things caregivers can do to help reduce a loved one's hypertension is to prepare foods that are low in sodium. Most people are surprised to find out that added table salt accounts for only a small percent of sodium content in food. Frozen, processed and restaurant foods are typically extremely high in sodium, and should be avoided or only be a very small part of the diet. Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, dry beans, unsalted nuts and nut butters, and grains like brown rice and oats are all foods that are naturally low in sodium, so try and incorporate them as much as possible in their diet.
As people age, they do not get thirsty very often, even though their bodies still need the same amount of liquids. If you notice that your loved one is not drinking liquids very often, make sure that you provide them with it. If they do not feel thirsty, chances are they may not think about drinking a glass of water.
If you are concerned that your loved one may not be properly hydrated, check his or her urine. Urine is the surest sign of hydration or lack of it. If their urine is clear and light, then they are most likely properly hydrated. If, however, their urine is dark and/or cloudy, they will need to start drinking more liquids.
How to Help a Senior Make Dietary Changes
Making dietary changes can be difficult for anybody. It can be especially difficult for older adults, though, because people get stuck in habits. If your loved one needs to make dietary changes to increase their health and well-being, there are specific things that you, the caregiver, can do to help with the change. Frechman recommends three important areas in which caregivers can help.
Incorporate Changes Gradually
Older people are usually skeptical of change. They need to make small changes gradually. As the caregiver, you should reinforce this and make sure that your loved one is incorporating the new foods into their diet.
For example, if your parent is diabetic and needs to adjust their carbohydrate intake consistency, incorporate oatmeal as breakfast once or twice per week. As they get used to it, oatmeal can be added to three to four times per week. If your parent normally eats white bread, give them a wheat bread sandwich a couple times per week, and gradually increase it so that white bread is completely cut out of their diet.
Set an Example
When an older adult has to change their diet for health reasons, they can feel singled out. Eating is a social activity and it is important to eat meals with your loved one. It is equally important that when you eat with them, you eat the same foods as them. When sitting down for a family meal, don't make a special meal for your aging loved one and something different for everybody else. By eating with them and eating the same foods as them, the dietary changes being made won't seem so drastic.
Sometimes older adults simply refuse to make necessary nutritional changes, even if they are doctor recommended. People with dementia, especially, may refuse to eat certain things. Be creative. If your loved one needs protein, try making them a smoothie with wheat germ. Wheat germ is not a supplement that may interact with prescription medications, but an actual food with very high amounts of protein. Sometimes, foods can be blended into a smoothie to ensure that your loved one consumes the necessary nutrients.
For more information on healthy eating habits for your elderly parent, visit the American Dietetic Association website.