As people age, it’s not uncommon for them to eat smaller amounts because they are less active and require fewer calories. However, they still need to eat three nutritious meals a day to prevent vitamin deficiency and malnutrition, which can lead to serious and even life-threatening conditions. Complications from illnesses, even the common cold, can become much more severe in seniors as a result of poor nutrition. Seniors can experience tiredness and fatigue, problems with memory, depression and muscle weakness as some of the issues of malnutrition.
You or an aging parent may be happy and satisfied with a cup of tea and a piece of toast or some cheese and crackers, but the body requires protein, vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. And because the body absorbs fewer nutrients as we age, seniors especially need to eat a nutritious diet from the four food groups – vegetables and fruit, grains, milk and milk alternatives, and meat and meat alternatives.
Listed below are some of the issues that can lead to malnutrition in seniors:
Loss of taste and smell: The senses diminish with age, especially the sense of smell, so eating may be less appealing and enjoyable. The number of taste buds you have also decrease and sensitivity to sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavours declines. In addition, you produce less saliva and the resulting dry mouth can affect your sense of taste.
Medications: Some medications can affect your ability to taste and smell, decrease your appetite and ability to absorb nutrients, or cause the body to lose nutrients.
Dental problems: Seniors with bad teeth or ill-fitting dentures may have difficulty chewing and swallowing food.
Health problems: A chronic illness or other health concern can make it difficult to eat or cause a lack of appetite. Dietary restrictions that limit salt, fat, protein or sugar may make food bland and unappealing.
Memory problems: A decline in mental functioning can affect a person’s ability to shop, prepare meals and keep track of how much they eat. If the condition progresses to dementia, eating and swallowing become more difficult.
Lack of social contact: Older adults who eat alone may not enjoy mealtime and lose interest in cooking and eating. Seniors caring for a spouse with a chronic illness may also not eat properly.
There are some things as the caregiver or concerned community member that you may be able to do to help prevent malnutrition in older adults. Speak to their doctor and get them involved in the situation. Most of the time the older adult will listen to the doctor before anyone else. The doctor may suggest a meal replacement supplement or nutritional supplements, such as multivitamins. Ask a doctor or pharmacist if your their medications could cause a loss of appetite.
Encourage healthy food choices for meals and snacks. Snacking on a piece of fruit or cheese, a spoonful of peanut butter or a fruit smoothie is a good way to get extra nutrients and calories between meals. If they have trouble chewing raw vegetables or fruit, they can juice or mince fresh produce or use canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. Show them how to make a smoothie and take them grocery shopping. Remember to consider their budget and help them find cost-saving ways to purchase nutritious foods. This can challenge them with some new skills, and also help them find other ways to get enough nutrients in their day. Sometimes the social aspect of the outing is as important as the food itself and regular social interaction can help prevent isolation which is so important as we age.