Proper nutrition is a vital part of a healthy life at any age. Many seniors tend to eat less as their metabolisms slow and nutritional needs change, but what if Mom or Dad won’t eat a balanced diet or hardly eats at all? How about if a loved one only eats sweets and refuses healthy foods? Family caregivers often face challenges like these at some point.
A loved one may develop unusual eating habits as they get older for several reasons. Learn about the most common factors that can cause an elder to lose interest in food and how you can remedy these issues.
Why Do the Elderly Stop Eating?
- Loss of Taste and Smell
Eating involves many senses. In fact, the sense of smell is very closely tied to our ability to taste food 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 ingredients like onions, garlic, ginger, celery or carrots at the start of cooking 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. This is why some seniors gravitate towards sweet treats and junk food rather than healthy ingredients. Try using fresh herbs, a squeeze of citrus, spices, extracts and different cooking techniques to boost the flavor profile and aroma of a loved one’s meals.
- Low Vision
Cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and other eye conditions can seriously affect a senior’s vision and how they perceive the foods they eat. 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. Vision loss can also make it difficult or even unsafe for a senior to shop for and prepare nutritious meals.
To enhance the visual presentation of a senior’s meals, make a point of serving healthy, colorful foods, separating each part of the meal so they are clearly defined on the plate, and using 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.
- Medication Side Effects
Some medications, such as Alzheimer’s drugs, some anti-depressants, cardiac drugs, antibiotics 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 medication regimen to minimize these negative effects or recommend working with a dietitian to provide a non-pharmaceutical intervention.
Slower digestion is often a side effect of the aging process as well as many prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications. Some of the uncomfortable symptoms of constipation like bloating, abdominal pain and a feeling of fullness can cause a reduction in appetite. Consider helping your loved one gradually 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, work with your loved one’s physician to devise a personalized treatment plan for alleviating digestive issues and restoring a healthy appetite.
- 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, especially if an elder has periodontal disease. 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, plant-based proteins like beans and lentils, 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, especially if a loved one is experiencing symptoms of dry mouth.
- 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.
Whenever possible, try to share meals with your loved one. Recruit other family members, friends and neighbors to join them regularly for lunch, dinner, or even tea and an afternoon snack. Look for local “congregate meal events” hosted by 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.
- Unwillingness to Cook
If a senior is unwilling or unable to shop for and/or 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 long-distance caregivers and those who work and have their own families. Other options include Meals on Wheels and paid meal delivery services like Silver Cuisine and Magic Kitchen. Find a meal delivery provider near you on the Meals on Wheels America website.
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 provide assisted oral feeding for clients who have difficulty with this and other activities of daily living (ADLs).
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 like a gastroenterologist 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.
Sources: How Smell and Taste Change as You Age (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/smell-and-taste); An overview of appetite decline in older people (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4589891/); Management of Constipation in Older Adults (https://www.aafp.org/afp/2015/0915/p500.html)