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Jun 14, 2023

9 Mealtime Challenges for Older Adults

Senior eating alone

Organized and planned mealtimes are important to ensure older adults are getting the nutrition they need. Loneliness and social isolation are among the roadblocks that prevent that goal from being achieved.

Overall, the meals lonely older adults are eating tend to be less healthy than those of who aren’t lonely, with those in the U.S. receiving 157 fewer servings of fruit and vegetables per year than those not lonely, according to research conducted for Home Instead, Inc.

Following, from Home Instead, Gerontologist and Caregiver Advocate Dr. Lakelyn Eichenberger and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Shannon Muhs, are the top meal challenges and tips for what family caregivers can do:

1. Physical disability.

“Hearing loss and dementia are two things people often don’t equate to loneliness and isolation that could impact mealtime,” according to Muhs. “If someone doesn’t have hearing aids to help engage, he or she is likely to be more isolated during mealtimes which in turn may jeopardize their ability to get proper nutrition.” In fact, according to research conducted by Home Instead, lonely older adults in the U.S. are almost twice as likely to have a physical disability (30%) than those who are not lonely (16%), and more likely to have a disability or chronic condition in general (64% vs. 48% ). Be sure an older adult is up-to-date on physicals and doctor appointments.

2. Dental problems.

Oral health issues, such as tooth loss, gum disease, or poorly fitting dentures, can make it difficult to chew and swallow certain foods. This can limit food choices and decrease nutrient intake. That’s why it’s important to talk to your loved one about their dental care and meal limitations.

3. Lack of emotion sharing.

That “lonely in a crowd” feeling could point to a lack of emotion sharing and intimate relationships including the sharing of deep conversations. “It could be a generation not knowing as much about how to connect and start the conversation,” Muh said. “It may depend on how they were raised and the emotional intelligence of both an aging adult and his or her loved one. Social media also can come into play. “It takes a conscious effort to spend time together talking and not on our devices.” Put down the phone for real conversations. Awkward moments and distraction can leave older adults disinterested in a fruitful mealtime experience.

4. Changes in taste and smell.

Aging can affect the senses of taste and smell, making food less appealing. This can result in a loss of interest in eating and a decreased enjoyment of food. Make sure to involve an older adult in the food preparation to make the process more fun, tune into their senses, and to find out what they will eat. Remember, it doesn’t have to be complicated. The key is to make sure mealtime becomes a regular part of their day.

5. Grocery shopping.

Recent quarantines and social isolation have made it more difficult than ever for older adults to retrieve groceries. Shopping challenges can tie closely to a lack of getting the right kinds of food. “Online shopping is a positive,” Muhs noted. “However, we see a lot of older people, when left up to them, struggle with it, and mistakes are made. In my opinion, it’s preferable for the caregiver to do that step. Older adult and companion plan the meal together, write the grocery list together, but then the caregiver places the order and arranges for the delivery.”

6. Medications and Health Conditions.

Certain health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, or gastrointestinal disorders, may require dietary modifications that can pose challenges in meeting nutritional needs. It’s important to consulate with your loved one’s health professional before creating a dietary plan for them.

7. Cooking for one.

Whether it’s a lack of motivation to cook for themselves or the desire not to create a mess, older adults may not enjoy cooking if they are alone. Online meal ordering through grocery stores may be a help. So too can appliances be designed to make cooking easier including crock pots, instapots and air fryers. Keep in mind that such tools may not be appropriate for older adults with cognitive issues.

8. Digestive issues.

Older adults may experience digestive problems like constipation, acid reflux, or decreased stomach acid production, which can affect their ability to digest and absorb nutrients properly. Many times a reduction in salty and starchy foods can make a significant difference with their digestive tract.

9. Loss of appetite.

Any number of issues from depression to medication to loneliness can trigger a loss of appetite. If an older adult has lost his or her appetite, it’s important to see a doctor to learn the reasons why. Make sure food is flavoured well to appeal to an older adult’s appetite.

Learn more about how to make older adults part of your family meals.

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