By Anita Kamiel, RN, MPS
Poor nutrition in the elderly is more of a problem than people realize. While important in their own right, factors like finances or poor eating habits developed over a lifetime are not the only reasons. Good nutrition is especially important for seniors. Research shows that seniors who eat healthfully are more likely to be able to age in place–in the familiar surroundings of their home.
Natural Loss Of Appetite
The elderly are known for loss of appetite, and there are many reasons for that.
- As they age, many of their senses decline, including taste and its natural ally, smell. Eating becomes a less enjoyable experience for them.
- Diets restricted in salt and sugar often don’t entice. Food is tasteless, so why bother.
- Loss of teeth makes it hard to chew food, and the texture of mashed-up meals is unappealing. Dentures can obscure part of the palate and impair taste buds.
- Many drugs have side effects that affect digestive tracts, making for a queasy stomach or dry mouth, leaving a bad aftertaste.
- Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) can be symptomatic of a number of health issues such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or esophageal growths.
- Inactivity can lead to weight loss and muscle deterioration, which in turn means less need and desire for food–a vicious cycle.
Actually shopping for and preparing food can be a substantial burden for the elderly. Their decreased mobility and level of energy can make it almost impossible. Link that to their lack of appetite, and the whole process becomes not worthwhile. They often turn to easy-to-prepare foods like toast and dry cereal that do not have much nutritional value.
Their limited food intake and high physical needs make each mouthful so important. This is where it would be crucial to have family members or support services, whether from home health aides or government agencies, to help get the food on the table in addition to actually feeding them and clearing away.
There are a number of organizations in the New York area that provide companions to escort and help frail seniors with shopping. These include DOROT (www.dorotusa.org), the Senior Companions Program (www.henrystreet.org), Visiting Neighbors (www.visitingneighbors.com), JASA (www.jasa.org), the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island’s Friendly Visiting Program (www.jccgci.org), and Encore Community Services (encorecommunityservices.org).
If all this weren’t enough, there is the real problem of money. Many of the elderly are on a fixed budget with no allowance for inflation, while the price of food in the supermarkets does not have the same constraint.
The number of drugs and supplements that the elderly are prescribed or advised to take by their physicians tends to balloon. Doctors are free to add medicines to the mix, but are loath to remove any. Many drugs are covered by insurance and Medicare, but even co-payments can be a stretch on a retirement income. Worse, when they are not covered, many of the elderly are forced to choose between medicine and food. Many cut corners on both accounts; they split pills and buy cheap food–far from a good solution.
There are a number of organizations that can help. The New York Department for the Aging delivers meals to the homes of eligible seniors. The Older Americans Act provides nutrition benefits through its Meals on Wheels programs. There are also congregate meals available served in central locations which give seniors an opportunity to get outside and socialize at mealtime.
What To Eat
It is important to maximize meals for seniors. There are many nutrients therapeutically essential to the elderly diet. Also, certain nutrients naturally decline in the older segment. These include vitamin D3, calcium, antioxidants, and vitamin B12. These and other nutrients can help with the immune system, bone health, free-radical elimination, and brain functions.
Some medications deplete the body of some vitamins and minerals, so it is important to find a knowledgeable doctor or nutritionist. For example, statin drugs normally cause fatigue, which can be greatly reduced if CoQ10 supplements are taken with them.
Remember your high-school biology class that taught you that proteins function in the growth and repair of cells, two functions never more essential than in the elderly. Easy-to-eat proteins can be found in eggs, fish, ground beef, and dairy.
Keeping the senior well-hydrated is also a priority. The water content in foods counts as well as the liquids they drink. Opt for homemade shakes rather than “liquid candy” like Ensure. Smoothies can be power-packed with nutrient-laden fruits, vegetables, and protein powders. The fiber can also keep the digestive tract healthy. You can even throw in some coconut oil, which is now being explored for use in Alzheimer’s patients.
All foods and supplements should be cleared with a geriatrician or geri-nutritionist. But it is up to those around them to make sure the elderly are being properly cared for–inside and out. Studies have shown that proper nutrition and food intake greatly enhances the lives of the elderly, enabling them to stay active much longer. Let me know if I can help.Â v
Anita Kamiel, R.N., M.P.S., is the founder and owner of David York Home Healthcare Agency and is fully acquainted with all factors related to eldercare services and the latest guidelines for seniors. Thirty years ago, she realized the need for affordable, quality home health aide services provided and supervised by caring individuals. You can contact her at 718-376-7755 or at www.davidyorkagency.com. David York Agency is also on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.