What to Know
Low appetite in the elderly can be a severe issue that requires medical attention. When older adults lose their appetite, knowing precisely how to help them isn’t easy.
Here’s how to deal with appetite loss in the elderly:
1. Understand the causes of appetite loss in seniors, such as poor food intake, medication side effects, depression, or medical conditions.
2. Implement strategies to encourage seniors to eat, such as providing smaller meals more frequently, getting creative with recipes, and avoiding pressure. Offer positive reinforcement to promote appetite and weight gain.
3. Make the most of mealtimes by including protein-rich foods, healthy fats, herbs, and seasonings, choosing nutrient-rich and dense foods, adding fluids, and joining them for meals.
Common Causes of Decreased Appetite in the Elderly
It’s essential to understand what is causing the decreased hunger signals to address the issue adequately. Here are some common causes of appetite loss to consider.
Depression can cause a shift in appetite, leading to either an increased or decreased appetite. Unfortunately, the elderly are more susceptible to depression due to loneliness, isolation, disability, lifestyle changes, and health problems.
Many medications can cause unintended weight loss or interfere with nutrient absorption from food.
Older adults are likely to take multiple medications, increasing the chances of experiencing appetite changes. They may experience dry mouth due to medications, making it difficult to swallow food.
Illness can cause a decrease in appetite. Common conditions that affect appetite in the elderly include cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and heart disease.
4. Poor Dental Health
Poor dental health makes it difficult to chew and swallow food, leading to less desire to eat. Other signs of poor dental health are bad breath, mouth sores, and difficulty talking. Poorly fitting dentures are another cause to consider.
5. Social Factors
Lonely older people may need more motivation to eat through more social interaction and support. Eating alone when you are used to eating with a table full of family can be demotivating.
6. Changes in Taste and Smell
Loss of taste sensation and smell can make food seem unappealing. Sensory and physiological changes can happen as a result of aging or due to illness and even medications.
7. Nutritional Deficiency
Nutritional deficiencies can cause a decrease in appetite, as the body may not be getting the nutrients it needs, creating a vicious cycle. Common nutritional deficiencies in the elderly include iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.
Anxiety and stress are common causes of loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss. When the body is preoccupied with problems, it can’t focus on eating.
A dehydrated body cannot digest food properly. Signs of dehydration include dry mouth, fatigue, increased bowel movements, and decreased urination.
10. Cognitive Impairment
Cognitive impairment, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, can affect an elderly person’s ability to recognize or remember to eat, leading to extreme weight loss.
Identifying Potential Causes of Appetite Loss
To identify the causes of appetite loss in older adults, observe their behavior.
Remember that there may not be a single cause. Often, appetite is affected by multiple factors.
For example, both an illness and the medications taken to treat the disease can affect an older adult’s desire to eat.
Consider a combination of physical and psychological changes.
Go through the list of causes above and their potential signs. Discuss your concern compassionately with your loved one or ask their doctor for help.
Dietary Solutions for Stimulating Appetite
Making dietary changes can help to stimulate the appetite of elderly people. It sounds like circular logic, but a healthy diet of nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables is highly beneficial in improving appetite in the future.
Here are some dietary changes and strategies for you to try.
- Eating frequent but small meals throughout the day helps stimulate the appetite.
- Adding aromatic spices and herbs such as garlic, onion, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, cumin, paprika, and turmeric to meals can help to make them more appealing and flavorful.
- Incorporating high-calorie and high-protein foods like walnuts and cashews, pumpkin and chia seeds, dairy items like yogurt and cottage cheese, eggs, fruits, and avocados, and even protein drinks into a senior’s meals can help to increase calorie intake.
- Serving meals with various colors and textures can help make them more visually appealing.
- For example, a quick vegetable stir-fry with rice includes colorful and crunchy veggies, soft rice, and savory sauces.
- Mediterranean salads offer a colorful mix of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, feta cheese, and olives and various textures from crunchy vegetables, creamy cheese, and salty olives.
- A simple baked salmon dinner or veggie quesadilla also provides these benefits.
- Adding healthy fats such as fatty fish, flaxseed, nuts, avocados, and olive oil to meals can help increase flavor and make them more satisfying.
- Offering a variety of finger foods and healthy and tasty snacks, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts or almond butter, seeds, yogurt, hummus, peanut butter, avocados, smoothies, or hard-boiled eggs in between meals can help boost appetite.
- Eating easy-to-prepare and chew foods can also help stimulate appetite. We have a guide to soft foods for the elderly for more information.
Use these dietary tips to create a meal plan – with the elderly person – to ensure that meals are enjoyable and nutritious.
Discuss your nutritional concerns with a doctor or nutritionist to ensure your loved one receives the necessary caloric and nutritional intake.
Having a plan lets you respond quickly when your loved one’s appetite has improved.
Strategies for Stimulating Appetite in the Elderly
Aside from dietary changes, you can implement a few other appetite-stimulation strategies in the elderly.
- Providing companionship, encouragement, and socialization during meals adds stimulation and enjoyment.
- Encouraging physical activity and exercise before meals increase appetite by increasing metabolic rate. Gentle movements, such as walking and swimming, are preferable. So, take a walk around the block before dinner time.
- Serving meals at the same time each day creates a regular routine and gets the digestive system on a schedule.
- Ensuring meals are served in a calm, pleasant, and appealing dining environment makes them more enjoyable.
- Seeing that older adults get adequate rest might create a better appetite.
Does Chewing Sugarless Gum Improve Appetite?
No, chewing sugarless gum does not improve the appetite of the elderly. Actually, the opposite is true.
A study published in the journal Appetite found that chewing gum reduces the need for snacking and is an effective strategy for weight loss – not for improving appetite or weight gain.
Connecting Social Interactions and Eating Habits
Social interaction is beneficial for older adults specifically and, in turn, helps stimulate their appetite. Social meals make eating more enjoyable and encourage healthy eating habits.
One way to make meal times more social is to encourage conversation during meals. Ask the older adult about their day or reminisce about past experiences to create a warm and inviting atmosphere.
Setting the table with formal place settings and inviting other family members or friends to join the meal makes them more social. Develop a schedule and make an event of it.
Finally, providing your elderly loved one the opportunity to plan and prepare their own meals with you in advance makes food prep more social and stimulating.
Tips for Caregivers to Encourage Eating
For caregivers, it’s crucial to provide a safe and supportive eating environment for the people in their care.
Giving encouragement and assistance with meal preparation is extremely helpful. Monitor their food intake and ensure they eat enough by keeping a written food diary.
Here are some ways that caregivers can help:
1. Listen and Offer Support
Listening to older adults’ preferences and concerns about eating is essential. Showing them that you understand and care about their feelings can help them feel more comfortable eating.
Help them feel “heard” and adjust their meals as needed.
2. Make Meal Times Pleasant
Make meal times a pleasant experience by providing a calm and relaxed atmosphere.
Provide conversation and engage in activities, such as playing music, reading a magazine, or even working on a puzzle during meals. Distractions can lead to higher food consumption.
3. Offer Variety
Offer a variety of meal options to ensure the person gets all the nutrition they need. Include healthy foods like fruits and vegetables and comfort foods like mashed potatoes or oatmeal.
4. Make Healthy Food Accessible
Keep healthy food readily available and easily accessible. Develop a meal plan with the senior’s input and prepare meals beforehand. Store them in the refrigerator or freezer with warming instructions.
5. Encourage Smaller Meals
Some elderly people have difficulty eating large portions, so changing the eating schedule to include frequent smaller meals throughout the day encourages them to eat more.
6. Get Creative
Adapt recipes to the individual’s dietary needs and preferences. Get creative with recipes and try to make nutritious and enjoyable meals.
Add flavorful and aromatic herbs when cooking to stimulate the senses an, thus, the appetite.
7. Avoid Pressure
Don’t pressure the elderly person to eat more than they want to. Be patient and let them eat at their own pace.
8. Stay Positive
Positive reinforcement is a productive way to encourage eating. Offer praise and positive affirmations before, during, and after a meal.
Medical Treatments for Appetite Loss in the Elderly
In some cases, medical treatments may be necessary to treat impaired hunger and thirst signals in the elderly.
1. Doctors may recommend hormone therapy, such as testosterone or growth hormone, to help stimulate appetite in the elderly. These therapies boost the body’s production of appetite-stimulating hormones.
2. Prescription appetite stimulants, such as mirtazapine or cyproheptadine, are often used to increase appetite, although they may have side effects.
3. Vitamins and dietary supplements, such as vitamin B12, can be taken to help increase appetite. Probiotics, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids may also be recommended.
4. Psychological support, such as counseling, can help an older adult manage their emotions and better cope with any potential underlying causes of their appetite loss.
Never implement these treatments on your own. You should always discuss these options with your medical professional first.
Making the Most of Mealtime
When a senior has a poor appetite, they may not get the proper nutrition their body needs to stay healthy. The decreased food intake leads to inadequate nutrition and overall health problems, further exacerbating the appetite problem.
So, when seniors with depressed appetites decide to eat, here’s how to maximize the benefits and provide proper meals with adequate nutrition.
1. Include protein-rich foods, low in saturated fat, to give seniors the energy they need and help them feel fuller longer.
2. Add healthy fats like olive oil and avocados to absorb essential vitamins and fat-soluble minerals. Fatty fishes are an excellent way to provide both protein and healthy fats.
3. Using herbs and seasonings that smell and taste great makes meals more flavorful and appealing, encouraging the elderly to eat more.
4. Choose nutrient-rich and dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
5. Add fluids like soups, smoothies, and juices into meals for additional hydration and nutrition. You can sneak in some ingredients they might not normally eat to improve their nutritional value.
6. Join them because eating with friends and family can make meals more enjoyable and encourage seniors to eat more.
Infographic: Boosting Appetite in Elderly
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