Food is an important part of a balanced diet.
My mom's appetite isn't very good these days. Her teeth bother her and she is in constant pain from arthritis. To make matters worse, she doesn't get enough exercise to work up much of an appetite. These days, her day goes something like this:
Cereal with fruit for breakfast
Yogurt or pudding and juice for lunch
Small amounts of whatever her caregiver has cooked for dinner
That doesn't sound so bad, but her diet is lacking in protein, fiber, and fresh fruits and vegetables. How can we entice her to eat more and help her make healthier choices? It's not an easy job.
Why do elderly people lose interest in eating?
Elderly people lose interest in eating for many reasons. Some reasons are related to physical changes, some are related to underlying conditions, such as depression or dementia, and some are related to social isolation. Here are some other reasons for loss of appetite.
- Lack of exercise and activity = no appetite
- Side effects of medications
- Decreases in sense of taste and smell
- Lack of energy or motivation to prepare meals
- Social isolation
How concerned should you be, if your aging parent (or parents) no longer wants to eat? Very concerned, according to my own experience and the opinion of medical experts. Nutrition, along with exercise, and remaining socially active are the foundations of healthy aging. Nutrition is particularly important. Malnutrition, which is common in elderly people, can make pre-existing conditions worse, cause new medical problems, and lead to loss of weight, which can then lead to muscle wasting. It can be a vicious cycle that, as your elderly parent's stomach shrinks, along with their appetite, can be difficult to reverse. Prevention is the best approach.
Here's a great article with some excellent suggestions about encouraging elderly people to eat. Listed below are some things that have worked for me.
- Offer special treats. My mother loves fresh raspberries and strawberries, so, when I visit, I always try to make sure she has some on hand.
- If your parent's dentures are bothering them, offer soft foods that are also nutritious, such as creamed soups, yogurt (add fiber), and protein-enriched puddings.
- Think small - don't offer too much at once.
- Don't get too obsessed about what they "should" eat. If your parent would like a piece of their favorite pie, go for it.
- Eat meals with them as often as possible, especially if they live alone.
- Arrange for Meals-on-Wheels or another food delivery service.
- Bring over homemade soup or fruit salad and other homemade treats.
- Make sure the fridge is stocked with easy to eat, easy to prepare foods.
- Most important of all: don't turn eating into a power struggle. This won't work any better than it does for children.
Don't overlook the importance of social eating
Humans are social animals. We like to do things together and eating is no exception. When my father-in-law was in his 80's, he was a widower and often ate alone. When my husband and I visited, we would cook his favorite foods and eat most meals with him. He thrived on the company. He ate more, gained weight, and had more energy. You may not be able to eat every meal with an aging parent, but whenever you get the chance, eat together. There can be no better way to encourage eating and show your love. If you live far away from your parent(s), then send gifts of food or coupons to favorite restaurants. When you visit, find out about programs where seniors can go to eat together. Encourage your parent(s) to attend community and church functions that feature food. If there are grandchildren in the area, encourage them to visit and prepare a meal or bring food with them. Even though my mom isn't much of an eater these days, she still enjoys the cheesecakes my sister buys at Trader Joe's and the pizza my dad sometimes picks up on Sunday evenings.
Here's a thoughtful article on the subject of eating alone: Why Is Eating Alone so Difficult? And here's something that surprised me. If your aging parent won't eat, nutritional supplement drinks - like Boost - aren't always good for them. (Who knew?)
Finally, whenever you can, encourage your parent(s) to take time for a hot fudge sundae or another favorite food. Nutrients are important, but - when it comes to food - pleasure is still where it's at.
What are some ways you've encouraged your aging parent(s) to eat? What worked? What didn't work?