The average person has a difficult time turning down
a bowl of their favorite ice cream, unless under the
influence of a serious flu bug. Even then, it’s usually
not a hard sell! A loss of appetite, however, is very
common in the senior citizen community. Caregivers must
be aware of their loved one’s eating habits to ensure
nutritional requirements are being met. Just as we can’t
imagine passing up that bowl of sweet dessert, your
loved one can’t afford to miss the most basic of meals.
Professionals at Mayo Clinic say that though the causes
of malnutrition seem straightforward, they are often
caused by a combination of physical, social and
psychological issues. The American Association of Family
Physicians says seniors with unintentional weight loss
show a high risk for infection, depression and
ultimately, early death.
Author Leanne Beattie writes that a 1990 survey by Ross
Laboratories shows 30 percent of seniors skip at least
one meal a day. Another research project found that 16
percent of seniors consume fewer than 1,000 calories a
day. As caregivers, it’s important to recognize the
warning signs of this easily remedied problem before it
The most obvious sign of appetite loss, thus
malnutrition, is a physical effect on a person’s body.
Weight or hair loss, bruising and weakness are visible
signs of distress. So are persistent and recurrent
infections, fatigue, depression and poor skin integrity.
As a caregiver, keeping an open eye to a loved one’s
physical appearance and functioning is vital.
Another phenomenon, the prescription “spreadsheet
syndrome,” is a large cause of malnutrition in older
adults. Howtocare.com explains how medications alter a
body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food, and also
impair its natural process of excreting minerals. The
Web site lists some of these medications as cardiac
glycosides, lipid-lowering drugs, diuretics,
anti-inflammatory prescriptions, antacids and laxatives.
While the above explains noticeable physical side
effects to medication, another issue is the mental
alteration of taste and smell that drugs cause. Many
medications and certain medical conditions themselves
contribute to appetite loss in seniors, simply by
lessening the senses which cause food cravings.
Some medications make foods seem bland and unattractive,
while others may prolong the “full” feeling, decreasing
a loved one’s temptation to eat. This is especially
unhealthy when it affects daily meals, essential for
life and health.
Many people are programmed to naturally take medications
with a glass of water. For seniors whose natural
appetite lessens as they age, this is a way of “filling
up” right before a meal. Karen Chapman-Novakofski, R.D.,
Ph.D., professor of nutrition with the College of
Agriculture and College of Medicine at the University of
Illinois in Urbana offers this trick. “I usually tell
people to talk to their pharmacists or doctors to see if
those medicines could be taken after a meal so that
they’re not full by the time they start eating. That
way, you’re still taking your medication with food, as
the prescription requires, but you’re not spoiling your
Some physical problems are ones a caregiver may not
notice on the outside appearance. A good example of this
is when an aging loved one has chewing and swallowing
difficulties. This can be a result of bad-fitting
dentures, or other issues with their teeth, natural or
false, that prevent easy chewing/swallowing. A loved one
may be embarrassed to say anything about it, or more
common, not even realize that is the issue.
A caregiver should ask questions, without making their
loved one feel embarrassed or unable to care for
themself. A simple fix could be all that’s needed
to make eating much easier and more enjoyable.
Many seniors are without a spouse and thus left to eat
meals solo. They also are prone to eat unhealthy meals,
lacking the energy or care to prepare food. The simple
social aspect a family takes for granted, your loved one
may not. As a caregiver, it’s a good habit to recognize
this, and also that even with a busy lifestyle, it’s
essential to take the time to include a loved one in
family mealtime. It may seem unusual to invite them for
a Wednesday pizza night, but Sunday afternoons are not
the only time they eat! Offer a loved one an invitation
to be a part of the family whenever they are able to.
The aging process takes its toll on a loved one
physically and mentally, which in turn, can lead to
mobility issues. Many seniors suffer from a loss of
appetite, attributed to nothing more than the inability
to access healthy food. Crowded grocery stores, busy
streets and overfilled parking lots all can place
anxiety in the heart of a loved one. Add less-than-ideal
weather to the mix and it’s a scary situation for many
elderly people. A simple weekly ride to the grocery
store can be a quick fix. If a caregiver can’t be
available, ask around a loved one’s neighborhood. Many
friends or local retirees are happy to give a ride and
serve their neighbors.
Technology has proven to also be a good resource for
those unable to shop for themselves. Caregivers can log
on, and place grocery orders through online services.
This ensures food is consistently being provided for a
loved one. Some local grocers may even provide home
delivery as another option to look into.
Proper nutrition will benefit both caregiver and the one
cared for, with better health. This translates to less
doctor appointments, prescription runs, etc. Many
elderly people will survive on toast, cereal and other
foods that require little preparation. This also puts
them at risk for anemia. Caregivers should prepare
now to potentially save time later.
Drink lots of water. It’s the suggested course for many
health concerns, but dehydration can also have a big
effect on appetite. Tell a loved one not to drink too
much before a meal, for the reason suggested earlier,
but to keep hydrated throughout an entire day’s time.
Water is essential to keeping all body systems
functioning at their very best.
Try something new. We all get tired of the “same old”
standbys. Imagine at 80, 90 years old, how many
meatloaves a person will have eaten? Even a loved one
needs change to hold their interest. Help them make a
new meal, or better yet, drop off a sample of a new
recipe that was hit at home. They’ll appreciate the
effort, and the change in routine.
Flavor is not for “foodies” alone. A little garlic or
lemon can spice up a chicken breast, as a dash of nutmeg
can take basic rice pudding to another level of
enjoyment. Restricted diets only add to the challenge,
but some simple seasonings can overcome that challenge
as well. A loved one may not have much experience
cooking with spices other than basic salt and pepper. A
caregiver can offer them some mini-cooking classes,
providing options for adding flavor while staying within
a doctor’s restrictions.
Eat small portions. Snacking isn’t just for kids. Many
loved ones may not have the desire to eat three
substantial meals each day. It’s perfectly acceptable
and encouraged to eat when hungry. Fresh fruits,
vegetables, crackers and cheese, yogurt, or a bowl of
soup are all good options.
Count calories. Many will hear these words the day they
start a new diet. For someone experiencing a loss of
appetite and fearing malnutrition, it’s the same
concept, though the goal is to consume extra calories,
not cut them! “When you’re older, 70 or 80, there’s no
such thing as bad food when you’re losing weight.” says
Dr. Margaret-Mary Wilson in an MSNBC.com article. She
teaches and researches geriatric medicine at Saint Louis
Nutritional supplements should be used with extreme
caution, only at the recommendation of a physician. A
loved one may not process Vitamin A, for example, as
quickly as a younger person. It may cause more problems
than solutions. However, a daily multi-vitamin, says the
AARP, could be a benefit, as well as a zinc supplement.
Talk to a doctor for advice on how to proceed with a
At any age exercise is important and it’s easy to drift
away from daily stretching as we age. But, it’s just as
important at 80 as at 8 years old. Moderate strength
training will increase metabolism, thus appetite. Many
public television stations offer daily stretching
programs targeted specifically for an older audience.
One last topic regarding loss of appetite is one a
caregiver may not realize is the underlying factor:
money. Everyone knows the cost of food continues to
rise, and the economy is hitting hard all around. A
loved one on a fixed income is no exception. The money
issue is even more pronounced in those who can’t
comprehend these price trends and why something costs
“so much.” Hence, they don’t buy the product, and go
without necessary nutrition. A touchy topic it is, but
one a caregiver must be aware of.
A loss of appetite in a loved one can be a very simple
problem as loneliness with a quick fix by offering
companionship. It also can suggest a more complicated
issue such as medication side effects, that require more
creative solutions. As a caregiver, it’s important to
take notice when a loved one starts turning down their
favorite bowl of ice cream.
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