Nutrition for the Elderly

What should I do if I fear that my aging father may not be eating right? My mother died a few years ago and Dad has been living alone ever since. Though his health is poor, he has declined several invitations to come and live with us. He's also completely unwilling to consider the option of moving into a retirement facility. My biggest concern at this moment is that his nutritional needs aren't being met. Can you help me?

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Many elderly people are at risk for malnutrition, especially if, like your dad, they happen to be living on their own. There are several reasons for this. Social isolation can result in loss of appetite and an unwillingness to take the time necessary to prepare foods. Individuals who for many years have been used to cooking for large crowds may feel that it’s not worth going to all that trouble just for themselves. Mobility problems can also make it difficult for a senior to prepare food, and poor dental conditions inhibit chewing and limit food choices. The age-related loss of smell or taste can cause the elderly to lose interest in food. Some prescription drugs and supplements can cause nausea or interfere with digestion, leading to nutrient deficiencies. As bodily organ function decreases, so does the absorption, movement, and metabolism of food. Some people over age 65 can develop atrophic gastritis, the inability to produce adequate stomach acid and other important digestive secretions. This in turn can lead to pernicious anemia and occasionally stomach cancer.

There are a number of things you can do to counteract the negative trends you’ve discerned in your father’s eating habits. For instance, you can invite him over for dinner as often as possible. He may not be interested in living with you, but perhaps he’d be open to sharing a meal on a regular basis. If that doesn’t work, offer to bring over a home-cooked meal or take him out to a restaurant from time to time. You might also go to the supermarket on his behalf and prepare some ready-to-heat, pre-measured meals in small packages or zip-lock bags. Liquid meal supplements may also be used to provide extra calories in a balanced formula with sufficient protein and other nutrients. It might also be a good idea to check with the
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging for information on how to have a nutritious daily meal delivered to your dad’s home. These are usually available for free or at a greatly reduced price. Local senior centers may also provide meals and social companionship.

You may find it useful to know that an elderly person has different nutritional needs than a younger person. Less muscle tissue and a lower expenditure of energy result in a need for reduced caloric intake. But while seniors may need fewer calories, they quite often need more vitamins. Vitamin D, for example, is needed for proper calcium absorption. The elderly also need more vitamin B6 (found in chicken, fish, eggs, oats, brown rice, and whole-wheat bread) to help form red blood cells, to assist in fighting infection, and to keep the skin healthy.

It’s also important to point out that an older person’s system removes vitamin A more slowly than that of a younger person, so there is a possibility of vitamin A toxicity. A relationship has also been found between low vitamin C intake and the development of cataracts. Diets high in antioxidants, such as vitamin C (found in citrus fruits and leafy green vegetables) and vitamin E (found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables) may help the immune system and prevent the development of age-related diseases. Before taking vitamin supplements, your dad should get the advice of a doctor.

For additional help and information on this topic, we’d encourage you to consult the resources and referrals highlighted below. Or if you have relationship concerns and challenges associated with this situation, please don’t hesitate to give our Counseling department a call.


Resources

Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones

Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones

Referrals
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caregiver Action Network

Articles
Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2002, Focus on the Family.

This information has been approved by the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.

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