When you think about eating disorders, older adults probably aren’t the first group of people who come to mind. Nevertheless, eating disorders are actually quite common among the elderly. Along with aging comes a gradual loss of appetite, a loss that may be exacerbated by the side effects of many medications. Living on a fixed income, the loss of mobility, or suffering from depression may also help contribute.
To make matters more serious, eating disorders in the elderly can be even more dangerous than in young adults because they may lead many complications. Without proper nutrition, a person is put at greater risk for a variety of injuries, illnesses, and infections. Prescription drugs may not work as intended, and there’s even an increased risk of suffering from overdose. If you want to protect your own loved one from these risks, it’s important you’re aware of the signs of developing an eating disorder, as well as what you can do to help.
Anorexia in the Elderly
One of the most important differences between anorexia in teenagers and older adults can be found in the underlying psychological reasons for the disorder. In young adults, anorexia is often the result of social pressures to conform to a standard of beauty, or a heavily distorted perception of the self. This is far less common in older adults. Elderly adults who suffer from anorexia tend to use it as a coping mechanism for forms of stress that are unique to their position in life. A painful divorce, the loss of parents, struggling to adapt to retirement, chronic illnesses, and even the fear of mortality may trigger or contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
Spotting anorexia in the elderly can be challenging, but there are many common symptoms to look for. These can include paleness, dry skin, fatigue, dizziness, social withdrawal, and thinning hair. Most of these symptoms are common signs of malnutrition. Unfortunately, these symptoms may also be the result of another condition or the side effects of a medication. That’s why it’s important to consult a doctor before attempting to make any dietary adjustments.
Getting Help with an Eating Disorder
Because of the serious risks that eating disorders pose to the elderly, treatment should to begin immediately after diagnosis. Like with young adults who suffer from eating disorders, addressing underlying psychological issues tends to be a more effective solution than dealing with weight loss or nutritional decision-making alone.
Supportive counseling and psychotherapy can be the most effective treatment because it can help the your loved one learn to cope with the feelings and stressors that underlie their condition. In addition to psychotherapy, a doctor may prescribe nutritional supplements. In more severe cases, temporary hospitalization may be necessary to reestablish normal nutrition quickly.
Above all, it’s important to remember that eating disorders like anorexia are mental conditions, not a matter of stubbornness. Attempting to force someone with an eating disorder to eat may make the problem worse, and confrontational behavior will not help. If you suspect your loved one may be suffering from an eating disorder, consulting with their doctor may help stop the problem before it’s has the chance to do serious harm.