senior woman eating vegetablesEat well; stay healthy. It sounds so simple, but we all know that eating right is a challenge.

In older adults, nutrition often becomes an even bigger challenge: specifically, older adults often don’t get enough of the right kinds of nutrients.

There are 3.7 million malnourished seniors in America today, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Seniors need plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and liquids to stay healthy. Not getting enough of these foods, or not getting enough calories, can lead to health problems. If you’re a caregiver to an older adult, be watchful for the symptoms of malnutrition, which include: lightheadedness, weight loss, lethargy, and disorientation.

Here are the common causes of poor nutrition in seniors, along with some practical tips to combat them:

  • Side effects of medication. Some medications or combinations of medications can reduce appetite, cause nausea, or even make food taste strange. Talk to your loved one’s doctor to find out if medication may be the cause of the nutrition problem. If it is, ask about the possibility of switching medications.
  • Decrease in the sensitivity of the senses. An unfortunate side effect of aging is that it tends to cause a decline in the senses of taste and smell. To make meals more appealing, try amping up foods’ flavors with spices  like dill, thyme, rosemary, and oregano.   They can add lots of flavor without the calories associated with sauces.
  • Poor dental health. Nobody would want to eat with painful teeth, or ill-fitting dentures. Ask your loved one if chewing is painful. If it is, schedule a visit to the dentist.
  • Forgetfulness. Memory problems can mean that your loved one simply forgets to eat. To battle this problem, plan to eat at  times when someone can join them for a meal.  If you can’t be available, make a call to remind them and comment on specific foods in the refrigerator or freezer they would enjoy.  
  • Snacks!  If your parent has lots of high-calorie snacks readily available, they can easily reach for them rather than get up and fix a meal.  Work to limit the amount of snacks around the house and make sure they are rich in nutrients  like nuts, fruits, and ice cream.
  • Lack of transportation. The grocery store parking lot is enough to make anyone want to put off shopping. If your loved one has to drive to the store, navigate through traffic, and then park far away from the door, she might avoid the store entirely. To remedy this problem, make grocery shopping a weekly bonding event: Go pick her up, and shop together. You’ll both enjoy spending time together, and as an added bonus, you can check on what she’s putting her her cart to make sure she’s getting a balanced diet.  If you can’t go shopping together, take advantage of the delivery services many stores offer to older adults.  You can work on the shopping list together and make the arrangements for your parent.
  • Depression. Many elderly people suffer from depression. Feeling down or depressed can diminish your loved one’s appetite and take the focus off of taking care of himself. If you suspect that your loved one is suffering from depression, talk to your doctor about treatment options. In the meantime, fight both the depression and the nutrition problem by making eating a family event. Take your loved one out to dinner, invite her over for family meals, and bring her leftovers. Having other people around might brighten her day and encourage her to eat.

These are all good techniques for encouraging your loved one to eat. But malnutrition is a serious problem. You might not be located close enough to your loved one to implement these techniques. Or, you may find that your hard work isn’t enough to get your loved one eating properly.

In that case, don’t give up hope: consider assistance. Consider enlisting the services of an in-home caregiver, who can pick up groceries, cook your loved one’s meals, and keep a watchful eye on her eating habits.

Want more information about proper nutrition for seniors? Click here for new nutrition guidelines for older adults, created by nutrition scientists at Tufts University.

How have you implemented healthy eating in your home? Share with us in the comments below!