We are what we eat, right? Good nutrition is beneficial at any age, but in particular for our aging loved ones the benefits worth noting are increased mental acuteness, resistance to illness/disease, higher energy levels, a more robust immune system, faster recuperation times and better management of chronic health problems. Unfortunately, one thing I have observed in my years of caring for clients is that when seniors start to struggle in the home by themselves, nutrition suffers. Reasons can vary from budgetary, depression, or medical issues such as dementia, chronic illness or physical limitations. Is Your Aging Loved One At Risk for Malnutrition?
Nutrition might not be near the top of your list of worries for your aging parent, however, it really should be. Proper nutrition for older adults is even more important than ever, with research revealing that poor nutritional decisions can eventually lead to cognitive decline and dementia. Preliminary studies have shown a connection between omega-3 fatty acids and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A diet rich in fat, sugar and cholesterol could increase the risk of the most common type of dementia.
For some seniors living at home, the tasks of planning, purchasing and preparing meals feels like it is not worth the effort or they simply cannot handle it anymore. Or, there might be other factors that have come into play. Much like assessing mental capacities, assessing nutritional habits can be like reading between the lines. What you see on the outside is your loved one not eating well. The cause might be something completely avoidable. Common themes of seniors not eating well often center around:
- Inability to chew – from dentures, tooth issues, weakened jaw muscles
- Upset stomach – causes include too much gas or medication irritation to stomach lining
- Inability to shop – from inability to drive or cognitive ability to make shopping lists or meal planning
- Inability to cook – caused by inability to stand for long periods of time, unable to reach utensils or cooking accessories, fear of leaving oven or stove on.
Sometimes the simplest answer IS the answer. If you probe a little deeper, you might find a simple solution or a way to have a caregiver help you remedy the situation. Observing, assessing and planning can be a tall order for family members. Taking the responsibility for someone else’s health and well-being is stressful and sometimes out of a person’s comfort zone. There is help. One of the roles a professional caregiver can play is to help with nutritional assessment; meal planning and can even extend to shopping and cooking.
Many professional caregivers are trained to factor in good nutrition while making meals more pleasant and flavorful. They will create a plan with options and advice to improve your loved one’s nutritional health and quality of life. Additionally, the experience of engaging the senior in the process and helping them feel like they are contributing can bring the joy back into dining—using eye-catching table settings and companionship to lift the moods of those needing care as well as providing fundamental nutrition.
According to Caregiving.com, check the following when you want to assess the nutrition risk for your loved one. If the answers to most of the following questions are “Yes,” your loved one is at risk and you should contact a professional for some nutritional intervention.
- Has your loved one recently lost weight? About how much?
- Have they had any recent appetite loss?
- For how long? (days, weeks, months)
- Do they have difficulty chewing?
- Do they have difficulty swallowing?
- Food allergies?
- A special diet?
- Have you been given instructions about a diet?
- Do they eat fewer than 2 meals per day?
- Do they eat few fruits, vegetables, and dairy products?
- How many servings per day?
- Do they drink more than 3 alcoholic beverages per day?
- Do they eat most meals alone?
These are factors that should be considered on a periodic, but regular basis, or if there has been a noticeable change in weight or eating habits. Professional caregivers typically track daily food intake and can help you recognize such developments and risk factors. Maintaining a healthy diet is proven to yield numerous health benefits but there is a bigger picture. Good nutrition leads to better health which leads to an improvement in your loved one’s quality of life, mobility, and independence.
About the Author: Suzanne McNeely, MSW, NCG, CLPF, CMC, is president and founder of Senior Planning Services (SPS) in Santa Barbara, CA. She began SPS in 1989 after many years of working in social services and hospital administration. Suzanne designed SPS to help advocate and provide guidance in all aspects of daily life for the elderly, including psychological, physical, financial and legal issues. She can be reached at email@example.com.