Loss of appetite and changes in appetite are a natural part of aging, but it’s still important to make sure seniors get enough nutrients. Our nutritionist Heather Schwartz shares her advice on what to do if your elderly parents won’t eat.
What Should I do if My Elderly Parents Won’t Eat?
You’ve asked, and we’ve answered. Our recent senior nutrition poll highlighted readers’ concerns about elderly dietary problems—and your biggest worry is lack of appetite in the elderly. Poor appetite doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem, but there are some warning signs to watch out for, and some easy things you can do to help your loved ones get the right nutrition.
Elderly dietary problems can be caused by a number of different factors: lack of interest in food due to changing taste buds, depression, or loneliness; lack of energy to cook; loss of appetite due to health conditions; and medication side effects, to name just a few. Also, it’s normal for the appetite to change with age.
“I remind my clients often that loss of appetite (and thirst) is a normal part of aging and doesn’t always mean something is wrong,” says Heather Schwartz, A Place for Mom nutrition expert and Registered Dietitian at Stanford Hospital and Clinics. “However, minimizing the detrimental effects of poor nutrient intake is always important, no matter from where the low appetite stems.” And of course it’s critical to rule out any underlying health problems, so if your loved ones aren’t eating well, a good first step is always to consult a physician.
What’s a Normal Elderly Appetite? What Should I be Concerned About?
The aging process brings with it a host of physiological, perceptual, and other changes that can lead to decreased appetite in the elderly. A lower metabolic rate and lessened physical activity means that seniors generally need fewer calories, and that’s normal. Dental problems or gastrointestinal changes (like lactose intolerance) that go along with age can affect the appetite, too. Changes to the sense of smell, taste, and even hearing can affect the enjoyment of food—also normal.
However, if your loved ones are making poor food choices because of their changing tastes, or if they aren’t getting enough to eat, then that’s cause for concern. It’s critical for seniors to get the right nutrition for their changing dietary needs, because vitamin or nutrient deficiencies can cause significant health problems.
Changes to taste or appetite also occur in conjunction with some serious illnesses, including head and neck cancers, salivary gland dysfunction, thyroid disorders, mouth and throat infections or periodontal disease, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Any unexplained changes to your loved ones’ dietary health, including unexpected weight loss, weight gain, or general malaise, should be checked out with a physician.
How Can I Stimulate Appetite in my Senior Loved Ones?
If you’re concerned about a lack of appetite in your elderly loved ones, there are a few practical things you can do to help them get enough nutrition:
- Increase nutrient density, not portion size. “I ask caregivers not to increase the volume of food they serve to seniors who may have low appetites, but rather increase the nutrient density of the foods they serve.” Don’t intimidate them with a huge helping, in other words—but you can often add healthy extra calories in the form of olive oil, a little peanut butter, or avocado.
- Set a regular eating schedule. “Our bodies tend to thrive off regularity, as do our hunger and thirst signals, so when we stray from our usual patterns, so does our appetite,” says Heather Schwartz. She suggests starting slowly, adding a small beverage and/or snack during a normal meal time. This can help get the body’s hunger signals going again.
- Encourage social meals. For people of any age, simply the prospect of eating alone can reduce appetite. For seniors, accessibility and availability of social contact can be even more of a problem. Heather Schwartz suggests checking out the meal options at senior centers, temples/churches, and community centers, as well as meal “dates” with friends, family, or caregivers. Even meal delivery services can help.
- Be aware of medication side effects. If the problem is dry mouth, Heather Schwartz says, “chewing sugarless gum, brushing often, or using an oral rinse prior to meals can improve taste sensation, and ultimately nutrient intake.” If meat is tasting “off”—and a common complaint is that some medications make foods taste metallic—then try other sources of protein like beans or dairy. If water doesn’t taste right, try adding herbs, or sliced fruits or veggies like lemon or cucumber.
- Consider using an appetite stimulant. Some seniors have had success with prescription appetite stimulants. First, though, consult a health care provider to make sure it’s appropriate.
Still have questions about poor appetite in the elderly? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll try to address them in a future post!