While eating healthy is vital for any person, regardless of age, the senior population tends to be especially susceptible to poor nutrition or malnutrition. Studies have revealed that a whopping 15 – 50 percent of elderly people in the US suffer from malnutrition, but detection has sometimes proved difficult. Symptoms such as lethargy, light-headedness and loss of appetite are often mistaken for other illnesses. However, as a caregiver, you can help to combat this challenge.
Often more important than attempting to alleviate the nutritional deficiency, getting to the root of why your aging loved one is not eating (or eating well) is essential. Some common causes for poor nutrition in seniors includes the following:
- Medication. The side effects of certain drugs can lead to nausea, poor appetite, and altered taste buds. It doesn’t matter whether the medication is prescription or over-the-counter – feeling bad often leads to reduced food intake.
- Poor Dental Health. Some seniors have difficulty with their dentures, broken or missing teeth, or pain in the jaw area that can make the consumption of some foods exceptionally difficult.
- Lack of Transportation. Ours is no longer a society which harvests its own food, so we depend heavily on routine trips to the grocery store or market to get healthy, fresh foods. Seniors have often scaled back on driving due to the hassle of heavy traffic or other challenges; some have stopped driving altogether. This can make getting the foods you need difficult or nearly impossible.
- Cognitive Decline. Memory loss (caused by dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other diseases) can disrupt the very idea of maintaining a routine of any sort. The brain’s reaction to these diseases can sometimes make a senior forget very simple things you take for granted (such as when they ate their last meal). Further, some seniors suffering with cognitive decline will buy large amounts of the same items (which can, and often does, reduce their intake of certain nutrients).
- Depression. A person suffering from depression will often simply feel too “blue” to concern themselves with their diet. Depression tends to take a toll on an individual’s appetite, as feelings of loneliness and/or unhappiness mount. While depression is manageable, this shouldn’t be left untreated.
- Health Challenges: Some health challenges can make simple kitchen tasks unbearable. Arthritis, vertigo, joint or other pains, and overall weakness can lead seniors to settle for something quick and easy, but less healthy.
The best way to pinpoint signs that these challenges may be leading to nutritional deficiency is to simply observe and have open conversations with your loved one, especially when or if you suspect that he or she isn’t eating enough or enough of the right things.
Speaking of right things, the types of foods taken in is important. Whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, protein-rich beans or other legumes, and lean meat and dairy should be the norm in a senior’s diet. The combination of these items helps assure that seniors are getting essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
Other ways to encourage your senior to get better nutrition include: dining as a group, especially with other seniors (to introduce the social factor); maintaining food storage for them; grocery shopping with them; and addressing contributing health concerns that are obstacles to eating well.