10 ways to encourage frail and elderly people to eat
As we get older, our appetite often decreases due to many factors such as hormones, medication, illnesses like dementia, and depression. This can be a real worry for the elderly, who are prone to extreme weight loss – making them frail and vulnerable to further health problems. Although I am not a qualified nutritionist, I look after the elderly on a daily basis under the strict direction of doctors and registered nurses. I would like to share with you some knowledge and techniques passed down to me so that you too can make a difference to another individual’s health and wellbeing. Here’s how…
1. Routine is important
Elderly people are creatures of habit. This is because one feels safe and comforted in the hands of time, especially for those with a tendency to forget things. If you are in charge of cooking meals for an elderly person, try your hardest to devise a meal schedule consisting of breakfast, lunch and supper, with a few light snacks scattered in between. Avoid eating too late and too close to bedtime because this can cause problems with digestion and sleeping patterns
2. Small portions
The second thing to remember is portion size. The last thing an elderly person needs is a huge meal sat in front of them. Although it is tempting to fill the plate, large portions will often put an elderly person off eating. This in turn has a direct affect on calorie consumption. It is far more productive to serve a small portion then offer second helpings when a person needs it. This approach is far less overwhelming and also allows the individual to play an active role in his or her own decision making.
3. Fortified foods to increase calorie intake
Fortifying is a term used to enrich meals with more nutrition and calories to ensure that minimum dietary requirements are met. Butter, cream, whole yogurt, olive oil and mayonnaise can be added to foods such as mash potato and soups, whilst making it taste better in the bargain (always a plus)!
Super foods such as Goji Berries, raw chocolate powder, Spirulina and Maca powder can also be taken in smoothies to add tonnes of nutrition – it’s amazing how little you need of these foods to make a huge difference. Even good quality honey can be substituted where ordinary sugar is used.
Where possible, substitute refined salt with something like pink Himalayan sea salt which is packed full of nutrition and goodness. Not only is it great for you, it adds the most amazing flavour to otherwise bland foods.
4. Being creative with ingredients
If you are finding it hard to encourage an elderly person to eat sufficient vegetables and fibre, try the discreet approach – they don’t even have to know it’s in the food they eat! This is where a food processor really comes in useful when preparing sauces and preparations. A few extra veggies can go undetected if blended sufficiently.
Talk to the person you are cooking for (if they are able) and try to find out what foods they used to cook when they were younger or what their mother used to make them as a child. You can then adapt these much loved recipes to fit ones individual dietary requirements. If communication is a problem, try talking to members of their family or people who knew them when they were younger.
5. Food for the eyes. Food for thought.
Just like you would a child, follow the rules of food psychology and make food look as appealing as possible. Presentation is everything when lack of appetite is concerned so experiment with different colours and textures until you produce a winning formula. Keep a food diary if you really want to do it the proper way.
To entice the eyes, try offering a selection of nibbles and h’orderves throughout the day. Even a few pretty chocolates in a decorative bowl can do the trick. If you are stuck for time, put out some dried fruit and nuts and leave it within arm’s reach of the elderly person – this is on the assumption that they can chew and swallow their food ok. If not, make an attractive smoothie or milkshake that can be consumed throughout the day.
6. Personal taste and cultural upbringing
We all know that food in the old days was a lot different to the way it is now. An elderly person brought up in the UK would be familiar with traditional hearty favourites such as Sunday roasts, Toad in the hole, Sheppard’s pie and fish and chips. Offering foods that are too different from ones cultural heritage could appear off-putting, depending on the person of course. For instance, spicy curries, pasta, and Mexican food could be a bit too exotic for the older generation – unless of course the individual was born overseas or travelled a lot.
The secret is to maintain a balance. Be creative, yet respectful of the individual’s cultural heritage.
7. Food intolerances and allergies
Did you know that the foods we often crave are actually the foods we most likely have intolerance to? To be sure, arrange an allergy test with your local health intuition to find out what foods to avoid or to cut down on. For instance dairy can cause diarrhoea, resulting in severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. If the elderly person feels unwell, or lives in fear of constant toilet trips, they won’t want to eat at meal times.
8. Feeding approach
If the person in question needs feeding, always make sure you set a nice atmosphere and talk to them whilst you do it. If you rush them or stay silent, the individual will think you are trying to force feed them. This could quite easily instil a sense of fear at meal times; a negative association that will have a lasting effect in some elderly people. They might refuse to eat because they are scared, or spit out their food as a defence mechanism.
If the individual has a tendency to get distracted at meal times, try turning the television off and motivate them without being negative or showing signs of frustration. Constant encouragement really helps - you just have to have the patience of a saint at times!
9. Poor fitting dentures
Sometimes dentures are more of a nuisance than they are worth – continuous wear or ill-fitting dentures can cause sore gums and discomfort. In some cases, the individual will go off their food completely due to the silent pain it causes. This is worth bearing in mind if you have noticed a sudden decrease in appetite or if the elderly person finds it hard to open their mouth.
10. Issues with medication and undetected illness
Some medications such as antibiotics have side effects including nausea and loss of appetite. If you suspect that medication is the cause of an eating disorder, seek medical attention and discuss all options with your doctor. There might be another reason why the individual is feeling unwell so it is important to tackle the problem by a process of elimination.
If the individual has swallowing problems for instance, your doctor will quite often refer to the SALT team (Speech and language therapists) who will then offer comprehensive, specialist guidance to make drinking and eating easier.
From one carer to another, I can only offer you the very best of luck. The fact you have read my guide proves that you have an interest in helping another person in need. Other than educating yourself, you can only try your very best. Be realistic of your limitations and accept the help of professionals whenever you need additional support or advice. It is better to seek help than to live a life full of regret if something goes wrong.
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