This information is provided for educational and information purposes only. It is not medical advice. Please consult a medical professional for specific questions.

Visiting an elderly womanA major concern for many family caregivers caring for aging parents is how to make sure they are eating healthy, nutritious foods. Unfortunately, there are a variety of nutrition problems in the elderly which can make this a difficult issue to monitor. Being aware of these issues and watchful for signs that indicate a problem is developing can help keep an aging parent healthier and more content.

There are a number of indications that a nutrition problem could be developing. These include the following:

  • Difficulty chewing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Side effects of medication
  • Increased food sensitivity
  • Diminished sense of taste and/or smell

Often, a caregiver may find more than one of these indicators present in the parent they are caring for, or that one parent has issues in one area while the other parent has issues in another. In my case, my mom had dietary restrictions based on the side effects of medication she was taking in addition to sensitivities to some foods, while my dad had lost all his teeth (and refused to wear his dentures). They both had diminished sense of taste and/or smell for which they compensated by heavily salting foods and, in my dad’s case, needing excessive amounts of sugar to enjoy food.

Difficulty Chewing
As people age, their teeth may become loose and, in some cases, deteriorate to a point that they either fall out or must be removed. Jaw muscles can also become weak. Both of these circumstances make it extremely hard to chew foods that are more substantial, such as meat; rice and some other grains that have a small consistency; or stringy vegetables such as celery. While dentures can replace missing teeth, they can slip and dislocate, making chewing a difficult task.

If your parent has always had a healthy appetite and you start to notice they aren’t finishing their meals, or they’re only eating soft foods, or maybe they are just complaining about how food is cooked, it could be that they are having problems chewing. If this is the case, there are several solutions to try.

  • One thing to try is to grind meat in a food processor, blender, or meat grinder. The downside to this is that it can look pretty unappetizing.
  • Another solution is to prepare soups and stews so that meat and vegetables are cooked to a consistency that is softer and easier to chew.
  • Another possibility that can add some diversity to the diet is to prepare smoothies for some meals. These can by filled with fruit, vegetables, and powdered supplements to keep a parent healthy.

Difficulty Swallowing
Difficulty in swallowing isn’t only a problem for the elderly, but it’s something that can occur more frequently in that age group. The medical term for this is dysphagia, which is noticeable in a variety of ways such as painful swallowing, feeling like food is stuck, drooling, heartburn and other symptoms that the Mayo Clinic describes more fully. The Mayo Clinic also has an excellent explanation of the different causes and types of dysphagia that can help you in discussing the problem with a doctor. Solutions for the problem will, of course, depend on the cause and are best addressed by a medical professional.

Side Effects of Medication
As people grow older and their health begins to decline, they will likely have an increased medication regimen. While these medications help them with many physical issues they may be experiencing, some have adverse side effects, one of which is a decreased appetite. Caregivers may notice this in several different ways. Some medicines may make the patient feel full or nauseous which in turn makes them uninterested in food. If an elderly parent is experiencing this problem, it’s important for the caregiver to contact their doctor. Usually, there can be a change in medication that solves the problem. If the medicine can’t be replaced, however, the doctor might have ideas on how to stimulate hunger despite the effect of the medication.

In other cases, medicines may have known interactions with some foods, herbs, or supplements. One example of this is a type of medicine that thins the blood and interacts with Vitamin K in a way that reduces the drug’s effectiveness. Since green leafy vegetables such as salad greens, broccoli, and asparagus are high in Vitamin K, a parent on this type of drug will not be able to eat those foods. My mom was on a blood thinner for a number of years and had to live with this restriction. I can remember her frustration at not being able to eat a spinach salad—her very favorite—because of the drug she was on. It can be difficult to encourage a parent to eat when the foods they enjoy are ones that can cause them harm. In mom’s case, after she voiced her frustration about this during an office visit, the doctor finally told her she could have a spinach salad once in a while, and she was delighted!

Increased food sensitivity
Another common difficulty when trying to provide nutritious meals for aging parents is adverse reactions to food. Increased food sensitivity is common in the elderly and can frequently result in stomach pains and aches, which may discourage eating. If a caregiver notices a decreased interest in eating or an increased occurrence in stomach problems, it may be time to do a thorough breakdown of the parents’ diet to identify what is causing the discomfort. Once the culprit or culprits are discovered, meals can be made that exclude the foods causing the adverse reaction.

Diminished sense of taste and/or smell
Finally, another very common reason for decreased interest in eating is diminishing of the senses. As people get older, their senses of taste and smell begin to dull, making food and meals a boring and tiring task. Unfortunately, one of the first reactions to flavorless food is to add salt, which can cause an entire host of other problems. If a caregiver notices that their parents are adding a lot of salt to dishes or complaining about bland food, it may be a sign that their taste buds are beginning to dull. Cooking with more herbs and spices, though not too many spices, can be a great way to boost flavor levels so that the elderly parent can still enjoy meals—without increasing their salt intake.