When you visit or share meals with the older adults in your family, malnutrition might be the furthest thing from your mind. Over-indulging, maybe, but not getting enough to eat? No way.
March is National Nutrition Month and an excellent time to consider the important role that a good diet plays in sustaining us as we age. It may be surprising to learn that malnutrition is a common but under-diagnosed condition in older adults. Not surprisingly, it’s linked to declines in physical health and intellectual activity, including memory and reasoning.
Malnutrition is more common in older adults with symptoms of depression, those residing in assisted living facilities, those who have problems eating and those who said they had difficulty buying groceries. Living in rural areas without access to transportation can make shopping a burden.
Some seniors can’t afford healthy foods or don’t want to buy fresh produce for fear it will spoil if they live alone. People who live alone often have poorer diets because they don’t bother to prepare well-balanced meals.
Nutritionists point out that the relationship between nutrition and health in older people can be a vicious cycle. Often, seniors don’t eat as much as they used to because they’ve lost their sense of smell and their taste buds aren’t as sharp as when they were younger. They become frail and more susceptible to illnesses which further reduces their appetite, as do certain medications to treat those illnesses.
If an older person loses more than five percent of his or her body weight without trying, it could be a sign of an underlying serious health problem. Schedule a consultation with their health care provider and go with them to explore possible causes.
Here are some simple ways that you can be on the alert for signs that your aging parents are or aren’t getting enough nourishment:
Check their refrigerator and cupboards for packaged foods and leftovers that are past their prime.
Look in the trash. Seniors who lack cooking skills often rely on cheap packaged foods, such as cookies and bread. A diet of sweets and other simple carbs might not cause weight loss, but it could lead to micronutrient and protein malnutrition.
Make sure their refrigerator and cupboards are stocked with healthful foods they like and can easily prepare and eat.
Nutrition supplement drinks such as Ensure or Boost can be helpful, but they’re best as between-meal snacks, not as meal replacements.
Don’t just bring groceries or cooked meals to your parents; sit down and eat with them. Take them out to eat if they’re up to it. Everyone eats more in a social setting.
Older people typically want to spend their later years in the home and community they love. With the right support, services and care, there’s no reason they can’t achieve that goal.