Q: My mother lives alone. When I go over to check on her, she tells me she is eating but I know she isn’t. She is severely malnourished. What can I do?
A: Senior nutrition is a concern for many families. As we age and especially when a senior lives alone, the idea of cooking food, eating alone and then cleaning up becomes overwhelming. Our appetites lessen as we age and eating becomes more of a chore than a pleasure.
If you know that your mother is not eating, then you're going to have to take steps to ensure that she is getting nutrition. Malnutrition among seniors is extremely common and if she is taking medication, it's a strain on her system. You can attempt to explain all of this to her and she may smile, tell you she's eating and then do exactly as she pleases.
What often works is to ask her what she would like to eat. If her favorite foods were in her refrigerator or her pantry and they were easily accessible, she might be more inclined to eat. For example, if she likes soup, then have it in the refrigerator ready for her to heat it up. Maybe it's a little dessert that she wants, but it's too much trouble to prepare it.
It's not necessary for her to eat three large meals a day. Unless she's on a special diet, you can prepare food for her, deliver it every few days and then check and see if she's eating. Foods that were once easy to chew and digest might be causing her problems as well. You are going to have to be a detective here and figure what is going to work for her. Make it easy. Have fresh fruit in the house. Make her a large smoothie and put it into smaller glasses in the refrigerator and she can grab one when she wants something. You are going to have to help her.
If she continues to lose weight or it's clear that she's not eating, then you'll have to take her to the doctor and have a conversation and a check-up. It's possible that there is something medically wrong. It's also possible that she's just lonely and doesn't want to eat alone. If this is the case, you can make arrangements for friends or family to come by and eat with her. Having company works wonders for a senior's outlook on the dining experience.
On the other hand, meal preparation and feeding are one of the major self care activities assessed in activities of daily living. If your mother's functioning has declined significantly and she is unable to perform the functions necessary to live independently it may be time to consider a higher level of care.