If you are noticing a lack of appetite in your elderly relative, you are not alone. Many caregivers express concern about their loved ones’ nutrition.
Changes in appetite are a natural part of aging, but lack of adequate nutrition is linked to a number of undesirable outcomes, including higher mortality rates in seniors. So it’s a good idea for caregivers to explore the reasons for the lack of appetite, and learn some ways to address it.
The Importance of Good Nutrition
An article in Clinical Interventions in Aging discusses the distressing rise of malnutrition, the “anorexia of aging.” The increase is connected with several related declines:
Decreased bone mass
Reduced cognitive function
Delayed recovery from surgery
Higher hospital readmission rates
No one wants to see their loved ones suffering needlessly, so ensuring that seniors continue to receive adequate nutrition is a critical responsibility of caregivers and health care providers.
Reasons for Appetite Loss
Our bodies and lifestyles change as we age, and changes in appetite are normal. But as we age, we need to adjust for these changes by supplementing and ensuring that the body gets the nutrients it needs.
The four main reasons for loss of appetite in the elderly are physiological, changing taste buds, psychological factors like depression and anxiety, and declines in interest and ability to cook.
As we age, our metabolic rate slows down. We also tend to move around less, which means we feel less hungry. If your aging loved one is healthy and getting enough to eat, that isn’t a problem.
However, lack of appetite in the elderly has been linked with more serious health conditions, including dental hygiene, gastrointestinal issues, cancer, thyroid disorders, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's.
If your loved one is losing weight or showing any other worrisome changes, talk to a doctor or another health care provider. They might talk about some lifestyle changes or prescribe an appetite stimulant, if appropriate.
After decades of working hard, some people’s taste buds aren’t as sharp. Some medications have side effects that can alter taste, change smell, and lead to dry mouth. While all of these factors can interfere with appetite, there are some simple ways caregivers can help. Chewing sugarless gum, for example, helps prevent dry mouth, and frequent teeth brushing enhances taste sensation.
Have you heard the phrase “we eat with our eyes”? One way to enhance the eating experience for people whose tastes are changing is to pay attention to colors and presentation. A bright, nicely arranged plate of healthy food is more appealing than a monochrome pile.
Think about a life spent cooking and eating with a partner or a family and how lonely someone might feel if they are eating alone. For seniors who live alone and are aging in place, it can be hard to get interested in food.
For people who are suffering from anxiety and/or depression, this lack of interest in cooking and eating can be a real problem.
Change in Cognitive or Functional Ability
Changes in your aging loved one's capabilities and mental state can also interfere with their nutritional intake. Maybe shopping, cooking, or getting around the kitchen has become difficult. Or they lose their place when following recipes. Seniors may simply lose interest in cooking or worry about paying for food.
What Can Caregivers Do to Help?
There are many ways that caregivers can help encourage healthy eating, including shopping, cooking, and eating with them. Here are some tips to ensure that your loved one gets adequate nutrition:
Eat with Them
Eating is a social activity, and sharing meals is a great chance to connect and spend quality time together.
Research shows that when mealtimes are shared with others, they will last as much as twice as long as when a senior eats alone. This number rises as more people join the meal.
Help Them Stay Hydrated
Hydration is a critical part of ensuring senior health. In addition to encouraging your aging loved one to drink plenty of water, liquids like soup, Popsicles, juice, smoothies, and milk can all help ensure that your aging loved one is getting enough fluids.
Help Them Stock Up
Helping your aging loved one with shopping, keeping the pantry stocked, and taking over meal planning and preparation can take the struggle out of the process and free them to enjoy eating again. Many local agencies offer services for seniors living on limited incomes.
Help Them Find Social Eating Opportunities
Explore opportunities for social meals in both formal and informal settings. Many senior centers, community centers, and churches offer meals for seniors.
Setting up regular "dates" with family members, friends, and neighbors can further boost your aging loved one's appetite.
Look into meal delivery services in your aging loved one's area that provide services for seniors.
Look for Changes in Appetite
Some changes in appetite are caused by physical issues such as poorly fitting dentures or "dry mouth." If your loved one is struggling with denture problems, schedule an appointment with their dental provider. Chewing sugarless gum can help with dry mouth. And research shows that umami flavors—a combination of "salty, sweet, sour, and bitter"—can help with dry mouth and revitalizing senior appetites.
Because taste buds decline in sensitivity with age, giving foods an extra flavor boost can help make it more appetizing. Rather than reaching for the salt, however, use healthier herbs and spices.
Help Them Make Healthy Choices
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends choosing nutrient-dense foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, lean poultry and meats, seafood, eggs, and nuts. Avocados and peanut butter are examples of tasty snacks that maximize nutrition. “Eating a rainbow” is a way to ensure that meals are healthy and visually appealing to older people.
Happy, Healthy Mealtimes
When we take the time to help seniors aging in place with their nutritional needs, explore the reasons for appetite loss, and join them in the kitchen and at the table for nutritious, healthy meals, they are more likely to thrive in their golden years.