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Tips for Improving Nutritional Intake of the Elderly

I've worked with the elderly and people with special needs for 20+ years. I have an awareness of some of the things that might help them.

Elderly Nutrition: A Concern

Why is elderly nutrition a concern?

When we think of nutrition, our mind immediately turns to the issue of what foods we consume. We all know that fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, are a good way to go. We know that getting enough protein—whether through meats, beans, legumes, or via some substitute—is also critical. We know to avoid high fat, sugar, and salt-laden diets. For the elderly, however, another problem can creep into the picture. That problem is undernutrition, which occurs as they begin to consume less food over time.

Certainly, lower consumption is not always a negative thing, but in some instances, it can put their health at risk. In some situations, undernutrition and malnutrition can act to create a number of other health issues; from hair loss to anemia to B12 deficiency, and on into the realm of more serious ailments. Those who are undernourished also tend to heal wounds more slowly and have difficulty recovering from injuries and surgeries. In more severe instances, undernourishment in the elderly can become life-threatening.

I am not a physician or nutritionist, I was a caregiver for my elderly mother and was a therapist who dealt with eating/swallowing disorders for many years. Any problems with eating or nutrition should always be discussed/evaluated by a physician. However, I want to share a bit of my experience to provide information for individuals who care for the elderly to help them recognize when a need exists and how to respond.

Why Does This Happen as We Age?

There are a variety of reasons why some elderly individuals may have trouble maintaining adequate nutrition, many of which are still being studied, but here are some common thoughts on the topic:

1. Changes in Our Senses

Taste changes, we enjoy food less, and therefore, we tend to eat less. We don't anticipate food, we don't enjoy it as much. Smell can also decrease. Our sense of smell is actually a large reason for why we enjoy food.

2. Less Activity

Typically, someone who is 70 or 80 years old isn't nearly as physically active as they once were. Activity is theorized to increase appetite. Thus, lack of activity is another negative influence on elderly nutrition.

3. Medications and Treatments

Many older individuals take an increasing number of medications. Ingesting several pills each day can be filling, but beyond that, are the appetite suppressing side effects of many medications. Bronchodilators, some cardiovascular medications, and drugs used to treat dementia are among those that suppress appetite.

When medications are taken incorrectly (for instance on an empty stomach) or the medications taken are known to cause stomach irritation, digestive problems such as ulcers can develop. This irritation can inhibit hunger, create a feeling of fullness, and so forth.

Certainly, if an individual undergoes chemotherapy, appetite can be reduced, while radiation may cause inflammation or scarring in the esophagus.

4. Diseases and Disorders

Many elderly individuals may be dealing with a disease or disorder that can reduce their appetite or make eating difficult. Loss of motor function or reduced sensation can create problems. A stroke, for instance, could result in loss of motor function/movement in the mouth or the throat creating difficulty in consuming food orally. Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological diseases (including some tumors and cancers) can result in similar muscular problems that make eating difficult.

Swallowing problems (dysphagia) can also arise or a number of digestive disorders such as strictures and GERD (reflux), which can make eating unpleasant, painful, or difficult.

5. Dental Problems

Many elderly individuals have false teeth. If their dentures don't fit well, this can make chewing many foods difficult. If their dentures are old, they may also be worn down too much resulting in an inability to break down food efficiently. The individual may avoid meat and other hard-to-chew foods.

6. Psychosocial Issues

Many elderly individuals may experience isolation, depression, or other psychosocial issues that affect appetite and their nutrition negatively. Many seniors have to deal with families who are distant or too busy to socialize with them on a regular basis. Their friends may die, and they may have or health or financial issues that escalate and lead to these issues of isolation and depression.

7. Pain

Pain can have a very negative effect on appetite as well. Working with a physician to identify the source of pain and to keep it controlled is critical if you are working to improve nutritional intake.

Tips for Improving Elderly Nutrition

Helping an elderly individual to improve nutritional intake can be difficult, and there are seldom easy answers. However, here are a few things that could potentially help:

1. Decrease Meal Size and Increase the Frequency of Meals

An individual with a reduced appetite will likely respond more positively to small meals and snacks versus an overflowing plate. Smaller meals can also benefit individuals who have certain digestive problems.

2. Increase Variety

Certainly, although taste and smell may be diminished as we age, our appetite can be blunted somewhat by eating the same things over and over. This is something that isolated individuals tend to do. Thus, getting them to vary their diet more can help stimulate appetite and, in many instances, can improve the nutritional balance of their meals. While some elderly individuals may gravitate toward bland foods, trying foods with more and different flavors may help stimulate appetite.

3. Increase Socialization

Eating is a social activity for most of us, and we tend to eat more in social situations. If an elderly individual lives alone, they don't get this interaction. Eating can become a chore. Moving eating back into the realm of socialization can help. It can also enhance their overall mood. Scheduling time to eat with an elderly loved one more often or hiring a companion can be two of the options available.

4. Increase the Level of Activity

Getting an elderly individual involved in more physical activity can help stimulate appetite and improve nutritional intake. From taking a walk around the block to participating in group exercise, any activity can be beneficial as long as a physician approves it.

5. Investigate Oral Medications

Talk with the physician about which medications may be reducing appetite. Can the medication be changed to something with less of a negative effect on appetite? Can some medications be taken via other routes to reduce the number of oral medications taken each day? Some medications, for instance, have an alternative that can be given less frequently or via a shot, a patch, nasal inhaler, or some other method.

6. Consider High-Calorie Supplements

There are a number of products available that provide more calories, more protein, and other nutrients that can be used to supplement meals. Products such as Boost, Ensure, and other shake-like drinks are common. Again, check with the physician for recommendations on supplements to boost elderly nutrition. These come in the form of bars to chew, thickened drinks like shakes, and in a juice-like form.

7. Increase Protein Intake

Although you want an increased caloric intake, increasing carbohydrates primarily isn't often the best way to do it. Increasing protein intake will offer more benefits and should be a target as well.

8. Evaluate the Need For Assistive or Rehabilitative Services

Some elderly individuals may have difficulty preparing meals. Whether it is an issue of strength and endurance or something else, it is appropriate in some cases to have meals delivered or prepared ahead of time by a family member. In other situations, rehabilitation may be needed for the purpose of increasing strength and endurance or to evaluate the need for assistive devices to help with self-feeding.

9. Consider Their Mental Health

An evaluation by a healthcare provider/physician is important. If depression, or perhaps cognitive problems exist, they need to be addressed.

10. Consider Appetite Stimulants

A doctor can evaluate and prescribe these as needed. Megestrol Acetate is one sometimes used for patients on chemotherapy but can be effective for other individuals as well.

11. Consider Other Physical Problems

If an elderly individual coughs during meals or seems to have difficulty getting their food chewed and swallowed, an evaluation is necessary.

Certainly, complaints of nausea, vomiting, bloating, and so forth could indicate digestive or other medical problems as well. Again, a medical evaluation should be pursued first in these cases.

In addition, check their dentures to be sure they fit well. If there has already been significant weight loss, this will influence the fit of dentures as will the bone loss that occurs in many individuals as they continue to age. Good dentition is critical for adequate elderly nutrition.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2009 Christine Mulberry


Sinea Pies from Northeastern United States on March 07, 2011:

Good hub. My mom just passed away at 85 years old and my dad let his nutrition slide a bit. She was his focus. Now we are working on having him eat with us more often, getting better nutrition and socialization in as well.

Voted up and useful!

Jodie Turner from Sydney, Australia on October 13, 2010:

The organisation I work for carried out a research project a few years ago that involved volunteers sitting and socializing with elderly people who lived on their own each day when they had meals delivered. All of the elderly persons in the project put on weight within a few weeks and also made significant gains in other health indicators. It goes to show that sharing a meal is more appetizing then eating on you own..

PaperNotes on September 26, 2010:

This hub reminds me of our great grandmother who I happen to still meet and spend some time with when I was younger. She doesn't have teeth anymore but she still eats any kind of foods as long as it is mashed or blended. I remember my brother used to peel apples and mix it in a blender so she can just drink it like juice.

2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on September 06, 2010:

This is an excellent hub on a subject that seems to be seldom dicussed.

Both of us have elderly mother-in-laws with health issues. Both of our M.I.Ls eat, but they eat too much of the "wrong" foods. We think part of the problem is that their taste buds hardly register some foods.

Tony McGregor from South Africa on June 22, 2010:

Guess I might need this info for myself! LOL! Don't know what age would qualify as "elderly" but I think the attitude is the biggest part of it, and I feel very young (though my joints don't agree!).

But with now two grand children I suppose I could start thinking of myself in this category! LOL!

Useful Hub - thanks.

Love and peace


sudhan45 on October 06, 2009:

Nice info.Nice to see you here.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on September 25, 2009:

You're so right. Mom is 84, Auntie 89. I make it a point to ask what they ate for dinner when I call in the evening. We've been blessed to have Meals on Wheels deliver. This ensures they have an easy to prepare meal available. But sometimes they're just not hungry. They seem to eat better when we go out for meals or I cook at their house. It's true, the dentures and medications cause a lot of issues.

Christine Mulberry (author) on September 01, 2009:

Yes, I agree. Under eating is often the problem. Changes in taste, social isolation, decreased activity, health problems, medications, and many other things play into this.

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on August 31, 2009:

I think the problem is also that the elderly don't often eat enough. My mother tells me that she just isn't hungry. I know that she isn't getting the nutrition that she needs.

Brian Stephens from Laroque des Alberes, France on August 30, 2009:

This is a really useful article and I recognise many of these symptoms in my mother now in her seventies and not really eating appropriately any more. I will be bookmarking this one for reference.

Nancy's Niche on August 29, 2009:

Your article is very accurate on the eating habits of the elderly. Caregivers need to realize that several small meals a day is exactly how the elderly need to eat. They are healthier eating in this manner and it helps to maintain their blood glucose levels.

irenemaria from Sweden on August 29, 2009:

Oh so much I wish I could stick to your suggestions. I am elderly and hate to cook.

Christine Mulberry (author) on August 28, 2009:

Thanks for stopping by!

Mohideen Basha from TRICHY, TAMIL NADU, INDIA. on August 28, 2009:

an informative hub. thumbs up for your great work and posted it in my facebook wall.