Meals often are tied to warm memories of family and friends gathered together. But for a caregiver of an older adult, meals can represent a source of stress — for both parties.
Proper nutrition is important for maintaining a healthy mind and body, of course.
However, older adults tend to eat and drink less for a variety of reasons, including physical difficulties with eating and drinking, decreased appetite caused by medication side effects and even a naturally diminishing sense of thirst that often occurs with aging.
Caregivers may need to take on responsibilities such as buying groceries, preparing meals and assisting with feeding to ensure balanced diets for their loved ones.
Before heading to the grocery store, it’s important to know nutritional guidelines for older adults are different from those for other age groups. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for seniors recommend choosing food packed with nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber.
When applying these guidelines to a plate fixed for an older adult, fruits and vegetables should take up one half, and the remaining half should be divided between grains, proteins and dairy products. The USDA recommends older adults consume nutrient-dense offerings such as whole-grain items, lean meats, beans, nuts and yogurt.
Following these guidelines may represent a significant change in diet for an older adult — and a challenge for a caregiver facing a care partner’s long-established eating habits and preferences.
Unless a medical condition requires immediate diet changes, nutritionists recommend gradually substituting healthier options into meals as a means of introducing new foods.
Food is only one part of the mealtime experience. The physical act of eating can be difficult for some older adults and may require assistance from a caregiver.
For older adults who experience mouth soreness or difficulty chewing or swallowing, care experts recommend serving soft foods, cutting food into small pieces or pureeing food to make consumption easier.
Loss of appetite caused by medication side effects or a natural dulling of taste buds that accompanies aging can affect an older adult’s desire to eat, too.
Caregivers can make meals more enticing by varying tastes and textures, incorporating brightly colored foods and enhancing food’s flavor with herbs, spices and condiments that are low in sodium. Minor physical activity also may increase an older adult’s appetite.
Caregivers who notice that meals tend to create stress and confusion for their care partners, can take steps to simplify the experience. This includes putting only what’s necessary for the meal on the table, keeping the number of food choices small and using smaller plates to serve only one food at a time.
Though it can be a huge challenge, managing nutrition and removing obstacles at mealtimes can help older adults maintain their energy, preserve their immune systems and decrease stress associated with eating.
USDA’s MyPlate: Explore special nutrition concerns for older adults.
2nd Half with Lyngblomsten: Learn how to enhance the health and wellness of older adults.
AARP: Read nutrition questions from other caregivers and answers from experts.
CaregiverStress.com: Discover the warning signs of poor nutrition, how aging can affect appetite and become aware of the lifestyle changes that can affect mealtimes.
Brandi Jewett is a writing specialist with Lyngblomsten, a Christian nonprofit organization that provides health care, housing and community resources to older adults in the Twin Cities. Lyngblomsten is a member of the Metropolitan Caregiver Service Collaborative.