senior woman and young caregiverIt’s a bewildering situation, but not an uncommon one: Grandma is losing weight, is withdrawn and unresponsive, and seems depressed. The doctor’s been called, but he doesn’t know what’s wrong.

He labels her condition as “adult failure to thrive” (AFTT). What is this perplexing condition, and what should you do if a loved one is diagnosed with it?

What is failure to thrive?

In the past, failure to thrive was a condition more commonly associated with infants, but it is becoming increasingly common among the senior population.

Older adults are given the AFTT diagnosis when they experience a gradual decline in health without an immediate explanation. It can be caused by factors such as: unknown medical problems, chronic disease, medication interactions, physical decline, poor appetite, or poor diet.

The symptoms of AFTT include weight loss, decreased appetite, poor nutrition, and inactivity. Often, someone with AFTT also shows signs of depression, dehydration, poor immune function, low cholesterol, and sometimes, impaired physical or cognitive function.

What can I do if my loved one is diagnosed with Adult Failure to Thrive?

A diagnosis of failure to thrive in elderly adults can be incredibly frustrating. The good news is that there are steps you can take to help battle AFTT:

  • Keep a close watch: If your loved one is unwilling to eat or drink, if they seem to experience a bout of depression for no reason, or if there is any other sudden decline in their health, visit his or her physician together to discuss what you have observed. Talk about what’s going on and make an action plan with your loved one’s physician. After a certain amount of time, evaluate the results and see if any improvements have been made.
  • Check the medications: Talk to your doctor and pharmacist about the medications your loved one is taking to see if there are any side effects or drug interactions that could be the cause of your loved one’s AFTT.
  • Document what your loved one eats and drinks: Poor nutrition and dehydration can quickly become dangerous, especially in the elderly. Keep track of what your loved one is eating and drinking to make sure they’re getting enough nutritious food and fluids.
  • Keep your loved one on the go: Activity is important for a healthy body and mind. If your loved one is mobile, go for walks around the neighborhood or a trip to the grocery store. If your loved one is bed-bound, play a board game or read aloud.
  • Communicate: Social stimulation can keep us active and healthy. Take your loved one to visit friends and relatives. Spark conversation yourself by asking about your loved one’s favorite topics, whether those be gardening, old family photos, or the grandchildren. Be open to hearing about their feelings of loss, lack of self-worth or sadness. These feelings are not uncommon and your willingness to listen and be empathetic can strengthen their bond with you.

How Hospice can Help with Adult Failure to Thrive:

If your loved one’s health continues to decline and they become significantly disabled (i.e., spends most of his or her time in bed, and needs assistance with everyday activities), consider hospice care. Someone whose health is severely debilitated may be too much for you to care for by yourself.

Many people don’t know that older adults can be admitted to hospice care following an AFFT diagnosis, but it can be a great option for care and increased comfort. Hospice will provide your loved one with a team of professionals, from trained nurses to take care of your loved one’s medical concerns, to aides that help with daily tasks.

Many people think of hospice as only for the final days of someone’s life, but this is a misconception. Under hospice care, some patients actually improve enough to no longer need the hospice team. To find out if hospice care might be the best choice for your loved one, ask their doctor.

Do you have a loved one who has been diagnosed with AFTT? Share your experiences and advice in the comments section below.

For more information, please review our Depression Resources.