Recognizing Malnutrition in Your Aging Parent: March is National Nutrition Month®!

Eat your vegetables. No dessert until you’ve cleaned your plate. If you want a snack, you can have a piece of fruit. Any of these phrases sound familiar? When we’re kids, we hear a lot of these phrases as we’re learning good eating habits. As we age, these habits become second nature (and often even enjoyable, as we discover how good we feel when we eat a healthy diet). What we might not expect, though, is that this healthy-eating focus can slip away as we age – and can have serious consequences. 

“Malnutrition is a huge problem among seniors age 65 and older,” says Sue Sunderland, Executive Director of The Bridges at Warwick, a supportive personal care community in Jamison, PA. “According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, approximately 3.7 million seniors suffer from malnutrition, and it often goes undiagnosed because it’s not something we automatically think about when we’re doing wellness checks on parents. After all, we assume our parents know how to eat ‘right,’ since they’re the ones that taught us how to do it in the first place. But getting adequate nutrition has some specific age-related risks that are easy to overlook until a serious problem develops.”

It’s important to remember that malnutrition doesn’t necessarily mean that a person’s not getting enough to eat. In fact, many seniors who are malnourished may be overweight or even obese. “The correct definition of malnutritionis not getting adequate nutrition,” says Sue. “Even if your loved one is getting more than enough calories, he or she may not be getting the vitamins and nutrients needed in order to keep their body functioning at peak performance.”

What Causes Malnutrition in Seniors? 

There are many different factors that can cause malnutrition in seniors. One of the biggest factors is poverty. Seniors who are living on a fixed income may find it difficult to afford anything beyond basic necessities once medical care and prescription medicines are purchased. Healthy eating is time-consuming and expensive, and many seniors may just not have the means to make it happen. 

Another reason why seniors may suffer from malnutrition is because of health issues and side effects related to medications. Your loved one may have difficulty chewing or swallowing, or simply can’t taste much because of changing taste buds, different medicines or because they’re on a restrictive diet that simply doesn’t allow much in the way of taste. 

Depression may be another cause of malnutrition, although it could be more of a chicken-and-the-egg type of situation. “Food is one of the greatest and most important pleasures in life,” says Sue. “Think of some of the happiest times in your life, and eating together with family is usually one of the top memories. When the joy gets stripped away from eating – which is something we have to do every single day – it’s easy to see how a senior could become depressed, which could lead to not-so-great food choices, which leads to more depression … it’s a vicious cycle.”

Recognizing Malnutrition in Your Senior Loved One

Malnutrition can cause many serious complications, including unhealthy weight loss, a weakened immune system, fatigue, depression, loss of muscle and muscle weakness, an increased risk of infection and more. However, these symptoms can be caused by a variety of other illnesses and diseases, too – so it can be difficult for adult children to identify the root cause. 

Whether your loved one is living alone or if you’re their primary caregiver, here are some things you can watch for to see if malnutrition may be an issue:

  • Look for physical issues. Is your loved one losing weight unexpectedly? Are they having difficulties with their teeth or dental health? Are you noticing unexpected bruising? Any sort of physical change that seems out of place can be cause for concern.
  • Ask your loved one about his or her eating habits. What do they enjoy eating? Have their preferences changed? If they live alone, take a look through their cupboards and refrigerator to see what’s available. Are you noticing fresh produce and nutritious choices, or are there a lot of frozen dinners and canned foodstuffs? 
  • Ask their doctor about nutritional needs, and any other issues that might be affecting their eating habits or patterns. 
  • Discuss your loved one’s medications with their pharmacist. It’s possible that the medications could be affecting appetite, nutrient absorption or digestion. If this is the case, look for alternate options that have fewer side effects. 
  • Visit your loved one during regular mealtimes and observe his or her eating habits firsthand. 

Helping a Parent Who’s Malnourished 

If you’ve determined that your parent is having difficulties getting adequate nutrition, the first thing you should do is seek medical treatment. Their doctor can do a physical evaluation, check their medication schedule to see if there are any problematic drug interactions and help you and your loved one find ways to make eating more enjoyable. Doctors can also refer you to a nutritionist who can help provide guidance for incorporating more nutrients into your parent’s diet while making meals enjoyable, tasty and healthy. 

Here are some other ways you can help your parent adhere to a healthy and enjoyable diet:

  • Make sure their home is stocked with healthy foods that encourage an appealing, nutritious diet. Remember, health food doesn’t have to taste like cardboard. Things like nut butters, egg whites, cheese, chopped nuts and wheat germ can easily be added into dishes to provide an extra nutrient boost. 
  • Be creative. You can help your loved one play around with different herbs and seasonings that can add a kick to food without adding salt, fat or sugar. Consider watching YouTube videos together to get ideas, or enroll in a cooking class to learn new techniques. 
  • Don’t forget about the importance of snacks! Make sure your loved one has healthy snacking opportunities for when they get hungry between meals. Pre-portioned servings of vegetables, cut-up fruit, bagged nuts and others make an easy grab-and-go solution. 
  • Turn mealtimes into social times by visiting your parent at lunch or dinner, or helping them make plans to eat with friends or visit the local senior center. 
  • Make sure your loved one gets plenty of exercise. Staying physically active improves health and also helps stimulate the appetite. 
  • Find ways to help your parent grocery shop and find savings. If you have a club membership to Costco or another warehouse store, see if your loved one would like to split the costs of bulk basics. You can also search for stores and restaurants that provide senior discounts, and use coupon-clipping apps to help optimize savings. 

 For more information on senior malnutrition and helping your aging parent receive the nourishment they require, contact us at 215.269.7745

Activity. Friendship. Support. Convenience. Value.

You’ll find it all at The Bridges at Warwick, located in beautiful Bucks County, where every day is a celebration of seniors. Our philosophy of “Celebrating Life” means that our residents enjoy a sense of purpose and contentment along with fun, personalized care and a focus on total well-being.

Our Personalized Supportive Care provides just the right amount of assistance to help you remain independent, along with life-enriching programs, services and amenities. Our exclusive Vista Transitional Living Program offers specialized programming our supportive care residents who have memory challenges but do not yet require a secure residence. For those whose memory loss is more advanced, we offer The Vista, our secure, comprehensive memory care residence.

In keeping with our founder Robert Basile’s personal philosophy, developed during his efforts to find quality senior living for his beloved father, senior adults remain our passion. We fill our residents’ lives with countless opportunities to engage with both new and treasured friends; events and programs to enjoy with family members and loved ones; as well as innovative and creative activities that foster engagement. Our dedication to total wellness – for mind, body and spirit – is woven into our culture every day.

Contact us today or call 215.269.7745 for more information or to arrange a personal tour.

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