Nutrition Articles

Nutrition and the Elderly

Are the Seniors in Your Life Eating Well?

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Eating well is important at any age. But health issues and physical limitations sometimes make it difficult for seniors, the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, to get the nutrients they need for a balanced diet. Poor nutrition and malnutrition occur in 15 to 50 percent of the elderly population. But the symptoms of malnutrition (weight loss, disorientation, lightheadedness, lethargy and loss of appetite) can easily be mistaken for illness or disease. If you are a full- or part-time caretaker for an elderly parent or grandparent, there are plenty of steps you can take to help your loved ones maintain good nutrition as they age.

Whether it’s because of physical limitations or financial hardship, many seniors don’t eat as well as they should. Arthritis can make cooking difficult, while certain medications can reduce appetite, making meals unappealing. A 1990 survey by Ross Laboratories found that 30 percent of seniors skip at least one meal a day, while another study found that 16 percent of seniors consume fewer than 1000 calories a day, which is insufficient to maintain adequate nutrition. There are many reasons why a senior may skip a meal, from forgetfulness to financial burden, depression to dental problems, and loneliness to frailty.

Possible Causes of Poor Nutrition
The best ways to find out why your loved one isn't eating well are to pay attention, look for clues and ask questions. Encourage him to talk openly and honestly, and reassure him that he is not a burden to you or anyone else. Some of the most common reasons for poor nutrition in the elderly include:
  • Decrease in sensitivity. The aging process itself is a barrier to good nutrition since it is common to for appetites to diminish as a person ages. A decline in the senses of smell and taste also affect a person’s ability to taste and enjoy food. If a meal isn’t appetizing, a senior is less likely to eat as much as he should.
  • Side effects of medication. Certain medications (whether over-the-counter or prescription) can reduce appetite, cause nausea, or make food taste differently. If a senior doesn't feel hungry due to medication side effects, she is less likely to eat even though her body does need food and calories.
  • Poor dental health. Seniors are more likely to suffer from dental problems. Ill-fitting dentures, jaw pain, mouth sores and missing teeth can make chewing painful. All of these factors make it increasingly difficult for the elderly to eat healthy foods.
  • Financial burden. Many seniors are on fixed or limited incomes. If he is worried about money, a senior may cut back on grocery expenses or buy cheaper and less-nutritious foods to stretch his budget. Lacking money to pay for adequate foods can result in a host of nutrition problems.
  • Lack of transportation. Shopping today is also more difficult with many food stores located in large shopping malls and on crowded streets. In order to go grocery shopping, a senior must drive to the store, navigate through heavy traffic and park far away from the door. Add snow and ice to the mix and you have a very treacherous situation for the elderly.
  • Physical difficulty. Seniors can become frail as they age, especially when dealing with debilitating conditions like fibromyalgia, arthritis, vertigo (dizziness) and disability. Physical pain and poor strength can make even simple tasks (opening a can, peeling fruit, and standing long enough to cook a meal) too challenging.
  • Forgetfulness. Dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and poor memory can hurt a senior's ability to eat a variety of foods on a regular schedule and remember what to buy at the store. One may keep eating the same foods over and over without realizing it, or skip meals entirely because she doesn't know the last time that she ate.
  • Depression. As people age, life can become more difficult. Their loved ones may be gone (or far away), their body may be failing them, even if their mind is sharp, and loneliness can take its toll. Feeling blue or depressed can decrease one's appetite, or make him feel apathetic about caring for his health. Depression is a manageable disease when treated correctly, but left untreated it can lead to many other nutrition and health problems.
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About The Author

Leanne Beattie Leanne Beattie
A freelance writer, marketing consultant and life coach, Leanne often writes about health and nutrition. See all of Leanne's articles.

Member Comments

  • I don't mind shopping since I usually find handicapped parking and there are electric carts. But hauling them into the house can be very laborious. - 1/18/2016 11:39:21 PM
  • At 65, I don't consider myself all that elderly but a lot of the time I am just not interested enough to plan a meal. I will wait to eat until I get hungry and may find myself eating total crap or snack-type foods because when I get hungry, I am ready to eat right then. My 85-year-old mother is actually better than I am because she wants to put "3 squares" on the table a day, which is more food than I want. I eat in order not to hurt her feelings and wind up eating way too much. - 9/27/2015 12:49:46 PM
  • Since I am , along with my brother and sisters, trying to help our mom eat more, I was looking for more ideas to get her to have healthy snacks.
    At the moment , the whole idea is to just get her to eat.
    Thanks for the article. - 9/27/2015 11:51:46 AM
    A well explained article. I just loved it. The writers have a very thorough knowledge. I would urge my grandparents to read this article. - 10/17/2013 3:40:01 PM
    This is an excellent article here by Leanne and Nicole. They are very thorough in their knowledge of senior dietary problems. As they indicate, there are many different factors that can contribute to a deficient diet. In southwest Florida, our agency provides non-medical home care for seniors, which includes cooking them regular, nutritious meals. Seniors are a national treasure and we must take care of them. http://www.elites
    eniorcompanio - 6/17/2013 12:34:41 PM
    I believe my grandparents ate well when they were young. They ate fresh food, none of those processed stuff. Towards the end of her days though my grandma ate looots of processed food. Not to mention she loved shopping at http://www.person
    alcarewholesa Of course she's just points and i do the real shopping. Anyway that was a drastic change in her lifestyle and i believe it affected her health later on. We should all just go back to how our grandparents used to eat: Fresh and organic. - 5/16/2011 10:29:27 AM
    While my grandma was aging (she lived to 97!), getting her to eat was incredibly difficult. There were a few things that did help her:

    1. Having someone feed her VERY small mouthfuls - I mean like 1/2 teaspoon at a time. (She was more likely to eat if my mom or I fed her than if a nurse did.)

    2. Only showing her little bit of food at a time. (When she saw too much food, it just overwhelmed her and she couldn't eat.)

    3. Eating icecream (always a favorite with her!) and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without crusts really helped. Also, there are nutritional drinks, like Boost or Ensure, which she enjoyed.

    4. Not forcing her to eat on our schedule. Towards the end of her life, she had more and more trouble eating, so my family only encouraged and offered food. Sometimes she ate, sometimes she didn't. Sometimes we had to wait a few minutes and then ask again.

    I hope that maybe some of my family's experiences can help.

    Blessings! - 3/21/2010 4:58:53 PM
  • I am seeing some of this now with my parents. Their appetites have just decreased so much, and I think they do not get enough calories, and I know that they are not getting enough protein. My sister and I try to help them with the shopping and new ideas, but they are resistant to change, it is hard to change a lifetime of habits. - 11/25/2008 10:29:38 AM
  • I believe nutritional deficiencies cause many of these problems in the elderly. For example: zinc deficiency alters potassium, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, sodium, calcium, levels which alters brain function and absorption of nutrients. Zinc deficiency also alters tastebuds and smell. I know stomach acids change and that also affects nutrient absorption. Hopefully you can change the stomach environment without drugs (because so many ALSO deplete nutrient absorption) which might help. Check HCA levels (hydrochloric acid). Iron deficiency causes fatigue and apathy ... you see what I mean?! (Iron deficiency also causes swallowing difficulties ... thinking of the poster who mentioned Parkinson's). We should not "accept" these things as "normal" aging! JMHO. - 5/27/2008 4:28:29 PM
  • Listing physical difficulty needs to include obesity. Before I joined Sparkpeople, my back would hurt from standing at the kitchen stove. Thankfully, losing pounds has greatly helped relieve that. Thanks SP. - 5/13/2008 3:20:36 PM
  • Parkinson's Disease and other problems can make swallowing very difficult for the elderly, so thick liquids would then be far better than things like nuts that can be aspirated when the throat muscles aren't working right. If they "breathe in" nuts or seeds to their lungs, it's very dangerous. So a way to help with that is to be sure they have a simple-to-use blender and can puree healthy foods into a hot soup or healthy cold smoothie. - 3/24/2008 2:24:54 PM

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