Adult Failure to Thrive: Signs, Symptoms and Solutions

senior woman and young caregiverIt’s a bewildering situation, but not an uncommon one: Grandma is losing weight, is withdrawn and unresponsive, and seems depressed.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.

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18 Responses to Adult Failure to Thrive: Signs, Symptoms and Solutions

  1. Yvette Huddleson January 16, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    I have finally been diagnosed with AFTT about 5 months ago; however, I have been dealing with this issue for over four years. My weight dropped to 88 lbs. on a 5’5″ small boned frame before they finally sent me to a nutritionist. I am now at my goal weight of 115 lbs. I have had multiple slip and falls due to lack of balance. I have had hit brick walls in every direction while attempting to get assistence. I am not working and have been fighting to get SSDI for almost 5 years. I have other complicated medical issues which keep me bed bound. I feel that I am being past in circles of doctors without getting any true treatment. If you have any place I can contact to get in home service, it would be appreciated. – sincerely, Yvette

  2. Catalina February 16, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    You could try IHSS.

  3. Joy March 2, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

    If you have not already done so, please consider contacting the local office of your state’s services for the handicapped and elderly. Here is one such website:

  4. patricia murphy March 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    My fathers cause of death was failure to thrive. I was living out of state and unable to physically check in on him as I always done previously. What are the statistics on AFTT as cause of death in the elderly and is there any research on relationship between this condition and family/home support?

  5. Harold C. Huster March 30, 2013 at 7:11 am #

    My wife of 58 years suffered cancer twice, had an infection called sepsis, then had a compression fracture in her back and the treatment for that caused her to get c diff. She had spent the last eight months either in the hospital, rehab or under my care at home. The last episode in the hospital she gave up and said I can”t take any more and stopped eating and drinking and died Feb. 20th. I respect her decision because I know how she suffered. I miss her.

    • David W May 14, 2013 at 9:16 am #


      Im very sorry to hear of the suffering of your wife and of your grieving. I can only imagine how you miss her after 58 years of marriage. It truly grieves my heart to hear and think of your situation. ,and I pray peace for your soul and Gods blessings for you and your family. Hang in there brother,people do care and the compassion I feel for you cant be conveyed through this computer,but its real. I just wanted to let you know,and God Bless you Harold.

    • Sandra June 25, 2013 at 12:35 am #

      Dear Mr. Huster,
      My sympathy goes out to you with the very nice note you wrote regarding your wife’s passing. It must have been very difficult but also very compassionate of you to let her go …

  6. Christine Clish May 3, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    My husband died a month ago and Failure To Thrive was among his causes of death. He also had Congestive Heart Failure; COPD; C-Diff & Crohns disease. In less than a year he lost 70 lbs. The last month of his life he hardly ate at all. The doctor at the Rehab facility told me my husband had AFTT – I had never heard this concerning an adult. I hope there will be more information about this condition

  7. Rita May 19, 2013 at 3:23 am #

    I am a 62 year old female. In my lifetime I never knew anyone who had the ability to do hard physical labor for 14 to 16 hours a day, but I did. I never had a weight problem one way or the other. I am independent and have always taken care of myselt and any needs I had. Two months ago I started losing weight and went from 120 to 86 lbs. My body is so week that it is difficult to get to the bathroom. I was just discharged from the hospital with a diagonosis of Faliure to Thrieve. Please, is there anyone out there who can help. What canI do to improve my chance to live. I’m to young to just lay back and accept this.

    • Sandra June 25, 2013 at 12:38 am #

      Have you tried Ensure ? My Husband uses it :) Also, if you have access to the medical community, can you visit a Dietician ? She or He could help you with meal planning that would help you increase your weight in a healthy way :)

    • Susan Rae Baker July 4, 2013 at 10:52 am #

      Hi Rita, they failed you! You need to see an endocrinologist, hematologist just for starters as there can been medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism or even a cancer that they have not bothered to look for. Also have your Cortisol Level checked as well. Don’t quit trying, find better doctors!!! Make sure you make a list of all your symptoms. If you let me know what state you live in I may be able to help!

    • Cindy S. July 11, 2013 at 2:00 am #

      I am not sure of your age, but you might look into a program called PACE – Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly. If you meet the guidelines you will have home health care, a primary care physician, a team of clinicians, medications prescribed by one doctor and obtained from one pharmacy to reduce the chance of med errors, a dietitan, a social worker, and specialists in dentistry, optometry, podiatry and audiology, as well as transportation to outside appointments and to and from the adult day health center where there are activities and meals provided. There are

      Look up PACE – Program of all-inclusive care for the elderly. All medical needs are addressed, including evaluation by a trained dietitian. They can help with in-home care, too. It’s a good program!

  8. Betty May 23, 2013 at 6:40 am #

    I never heard of AFTT until recently–My 66 year old husband has lost 57 lbs in 6 months–was originally diagnosed with Alzeimers.When I took him for 2nd opinion, they said Vascular Dementia, then Sjogrens with behavorial disturbance-it’s been a roller coaster-he is definitely depressed and has anxiety-no matter what is prescribed, he has shown little improvement, and today has slept 24 hours!can he possibly have this? What do I do to make sure or rule it out? We’re at a loss…

  9. Teresa W August 5, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    Our 81 year old mother has had chronic pelvic pain for her entire life. Never able to find a diagnosis for this, she has tried pain meds but none has really helped. She worked at the university in town for 32 years in terrible pain every day of her career. After she retired she volunteered at a local ministry to keep her mind off of her pain. It has become so severe in the last few years that she has eaten less and less and now cannot keep food down at all. Over the last 3 months she has lost 25 pounds, has had to have a colostomy, has an infection in the colon, and is still in horrible pain. Today we contacted hospice. She wants to be through with this pain. She’s tired. We’re praying this will be over before too long.

  10. Kelly Rector August 18, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    7 years ago my mom had a fall & is a quadriplegic- she has had many health/emotional ups & downs but has a severe pressure sore & we were told she has to stay in bed hooked up to a wound vac for 6-12 months, she isn’t healing. She doesn’t eat well but 7 days ago stopped eating/drinking altogether. She won’t really look at me, doesn’t like it when I touch her & is asleep most of the day. She wakes up but doesn’t seem to know what is going on, what day it is etc.. She moans a lot. Her blood & urine tests came back normal. I am so confused as to what to do-

  11. Penny November 17, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    I learned of this condition when I read it on my mother’s death certificate. Mom chose her own time to go; she started sleeping a lot and refusing to eat, and later on, she stopped drinking. It took about 3 weeks for her body to catch up with her decision. During that time, we tried to keep her surroundings as calm and peaceful as possible. Unfortunately, the nursing home doesn’t allow hospice care, so we did what we could to keep her comfortable. I suppose this could have happened just as easily if she was still living at home, but I can’t help but wonder if the nursing home environment contributed to her failure to thrive. I miss her so much.

    • Lori Hamrick January 28, 2014 at 9:39 pm #

      Please know that there is nothing you could have done to prevent your mother’s death. AFTT …. would have happened even if you cared for her at home. I know because I lost my mom a week ago after ten months of trying everything even aortic valve replacement. Your mother would not want you to blame yourself.

  12. Abraham Garza January 10, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

    My grandfather passed away seven years ago on his death certificate the cause of death was labeled Adult Failure to Thrive and thats all. I was going thru his medical file and the last illness he was diagnosed weith was asbestosis. I have looked up the symptoms for asbestosis and adult failure to thrive and they are very similar. Is there a possibility that adult5 failure to thrive could have been mistaken for his asbestosis? And should i contact the doctor who signed his death certificate.

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