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4 Things Family Caregivers Should Know About Senior Nutrition


“I’m just not hungry.” “I’ve been eating this food for 80 years, and I’m still alive, so why change now?” Sound familiar?

If your elderly mother doesn’t want to eat or your aging father insists on sticking to his diet of red meat and ice cream, you’re not alone. As a family caregiver, you want what’s best for your loved one — and sometimes they just won’t listen. But it’s often not because they’re trying to be difficult.  

Did you know that your mom’s taste buds might be changing so food just doesn’t taste as good as it used to? Or maybe she’s tired of cooking food for one, so her appetite is lacking. And perhaps your dad is struggling with depression, and food is the only thing left that brings him pleasure.  

“It’s tough,” says David Crespo, Food Service Director at The Ivy at Watertown. “They’ve lived their life. They were able to do what they want. But, oftentimes, we just see where they’re at now and how they’re doing now, and we forget they were once just like us.” 

“Even me at 42, when my wife or kids say, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to have that!’ — that turns on a button,” he continues. “You don’t want people to tell you what to do. You’re old enough to make your own decisions. So we gotta go with their flow and let them know how much we care about them and how much we want them to be in our lives for as long as possible.”  

If your loved one has developed unusual eating habits or illnesses or memory loss, which often come with special challenges that affect their ability to enjoy a well-balanced meal, it can be helpful to learn about senior nutrition and common factors that can cause an elderly parent to not want to eat or make them more susceptible to malnutrition. 

Here are four things you should know about nutrition for seniors.  

1. There are many reasons why the elderly stop eating. 

If your elderly mother or father doesn’t want to eat, there could be a few reasons why. 

Dull Taste Buds and Loss of Smell

As people age, they tend to experience a reduction in their senses of smell and taste, so food doesn’t taste the same. 

“To help make your loved one’s dining experience more enjoyable, try altering recipes to include more flavorful spices and herbs,” Crespo says. 

Low Vision

If your parent has cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, or another eye condition, they might not be able to clearly see what’s on their plate and may start to lose interest in food.  

Crespo suggests serving healthy, colorful foods and using dishes that contrast with the color of the foods being served. “You don’t want plates that are the same color as the food,” he says. “If they can’t tell what it is, they won’t eat it.”  

Difficulty Chewing and Swallowing

If your parent is reluctant to eat, they may be having a problem chewing, which could be due to dentures that don’t fit correctly, oral pain, or other dental issues.  

“If it’s hard for them to chew or swallow, serve softer foods,” Crespo says. “For instance, rather than pot roast, make them meatloaf.” 

Medication Side Effects

Certain medications might be impacting your loved one’s desire to eat, too. Consider making a doctor appointment or stopping by the pharmacy to see if any of their prescriptions or medical treatments could be causing a reduction in their appetite or other side effects, such as bad tastes in the mouth or dry mouth.

2. Dehydration is a common problem.

Anyone may become dehydrated, but older adults are at greater risk. Some seniors have less sensitivity to the feeling of being thirsty, which leads to inadequate water intake. Others have increased mobility problems, which limits their ability to obtain water for themselves. 

Dehydration can lead to serious complications, including: 

  • Low blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Urinary and kidney problems, such as urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and even kidney failure 
  • Severe cramping and muscle contractions, which can lead to difficulty walking 
  • Loss of consciousness 

To help prevent your parent from getting dehydrated, always have water or other liquids available.  

Crespo also suggests leaving notes around the house on the mirror or the fridge or on the beverage itself: “Drink a little bit of me. It will help you feel better.” 

3. Someone with memory loss may not know what they want to eat or how to eat it.

If your loved one struggles with memory loss, they may become overwhelmed with too many food choices, forget to eat, or have difficulty with eating utensils. Here are some strategies for dining with dignity

  • If your loved one doesn’t know what they want to eat, give them two choices.  
  • Serve one dish at a time. Serving too many foods at once may be overwhelming.  
  • Use small plates, as large ones can be overwhelming, and use a plate that is a different color than the color of the food and a placemat that’s a different color than the plate so they can distinguish food from the plate or the plate from the table.  
  • If your loved one is choking or coughing while they eat, Crespo suggests chopping food into small pieces to make it easier to chew.  
  • If food is falling off the fork, Crespo suggests getting weighted utensils. Offering finger foods — sandwiches, cut-up fruits and veggies, cheese cubes, etc. — can also help with coordination.  

4. Eating alone can lead to depression.

There are many reasons people eat — for fuel, for enjoyment, and for social reasons. But many older adults eat most of their meals alone.  

If your parent lives at home alone, mealtime can become lonely. Plus, cooking a big, healthy meal for one can feel like a burden, so many seniors don’t. 

“My grandmother used to live alone, and she never wanted to cook for herself,” Crespo recalls. “She’d either wait for someone to come by with something or cook for her — or she just wouldn’t eat.”  

Seniors are already at a higher risk for loneliness and isolation, so social disconnectedness at the dinner table only increases the risk of depression

If your parent lives alone and eats most of their meals alone, recruit other family members, friends, and neighbors to join them for mealtime or encourage them to stop by the local senior center or assisted living community to make mealtime an enjoyable social event. 

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