Good nutrition is important for people of all ages, especially seniors who may be facing several obstacles to a healthy diet. For families and caregivers, knowing what to look for and possible causes for inadequate nutrition can be a life saver– literally.
Identifying the causes of malnutrition may seem obvious: not eating, not getting enough nutrients, or possibly a medical condition. But malnutrition is often caused by a combination of physical, social and psychological factors. For example:
• Health problems: decreased appetite, certain medications, trouble chewing, difficulty absorbing nutrients.
• Limited income or social contact: trouble affording groceries with the cost of expensive medications. Seniors eating along may not enjoy meals and lose interest in eating.
• Depression: loneliness, poor health, and decreased mobility may contribute to depression and loss of appetite.
• Alcoholism: acting as a substitute for meals. Alcohol also decreases the appetite.
• Restricted diets: limited salt, fat, protein and sugar can be bland and unappealing.
When an insufficient diet goes undetected it may lead to fatigue, depression, weakened immune system and risk of infection, reduced red blood count (anemia), muscle weakness which can then lead to falls and fractures, digestive, lung and heart problems and poor skin integrity. Proper nutrition is particularly important for older adults who are seriously ill and those who suffer from dementia or experience weight loss.
The first step to combating this issue with your loved one is knowing what to look for. Take time to observe their eating habits and not just at special occasions. If they live alone, who buys his or her groceries? If they live in a long term care facility, visit during mealtimes. Next, look for the physical signs: poor healing, easy bruising, dental problems and weight loss (changes in how clothing fits). Finally, know their medications. Many drugs have an effect on appetite, digestion and the absorption of nutrients.
So what can you do if you suspect malnutrition? Start by encouraging your loved one to eat foods packed with nutrients; add nut butters, fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs and cheese to food. Another easy way can be to wake up bland foods by experimenting with herbs and spices or lemon juice. You can also seek the help of a dietician with this step. Planning between-meal snacks can be particularly helpful since older adults tend to get full quickly. Try making mealtime a social event by joining them or encouraging them to eat with others. By encouraging daily physical activity, the appetite is stimulated and bones and muscles become stronger. If cost is a concern, try providing money saving tips like clipping coupons or watching sales. Encourage them to visit restaurants that offer senior discounts. Visit with your loved one’s doctor about changing medications that affect appetite.
Remember, identification and treatment of nutrition problems early on can promote good health, independence and increased longevity. Assisted living communities like The Continental at St. Joseph’s can ensure that your loved one is getting three well-balanced each day. If you suspect signs of malnutrition be sure to take steps now to ensure your loved one’s health.
Kristen Sheston is the Assistant Administrator at The Continental at St. Joseph’s, the leading assisted living community in southern Iowa, located in Centerville.
More information is available at http://www.thecontinentalatstjosephs.com/.