Mom Hardly Eats. How Can I Help?
"My 85-year-old mother eats like a bird. She lives alone and no longer cooks. She only eats toast, yogurt, tea, jam, and cookies. That's it. When we stop over with food, she eats a little bit, but most of the time she is too busy talking to actually eat. My sister and I are concerned she is wasting away. While she has not had any health issues, she is quite thin. She has always been small, but she used to eat more. What can we do to help Mom resume a healthy diet?" - READER
An elderly parent who no longer eats “regular food” is a fairly common phenomenon. There are a variety of potential reasons for this eating pattern, and I encourage you to explore all of them.
- Does she experience tooth pain, loose teeth, ill-fitting dentures or dental appliances?
- Does food seem tasteless due to changing taste buds?
- Is it physically too difficult to cook?
- Is your mother depressed or lonely?
- Are medications affecting her taste or appetite?
- Is her consumption of sugar decreasing her appetite for meals?
- How much alcohol is she consuming?
- Is disease an issue, and is her decreased dietary intake a warning sign?
- Is she having routine medical checkups?
Once you have answered the questions above, you can begin to problem-solve her diet.
It is important to understand that the elderly at her age are far less active then they were at half that age. Since she has always been small, her dietary intake has always been modest. With less activity, her need for food is going to be reduced. A piece of toast and a cup of tea may satisfy her for a meal, while it seems absurd to you. But it may, indeed, not be enough calories to maintain her weight. The loss of muscle, fat, and bone density on a very small frame exposes her to a variety of health issues, so it is important for her to maintain her weight.
Some suggestions for helping your mother maintain a diet with less sugar and more protein:
- Bring her single-serve portions of meals that she can simply heat up in the microwave.
- Prepare foods that she made for you as a child for your family and bring her a portion attractively arranged on a plate that only requires heating.
- Schedule one or two meals a week on a routine basis with her family. While she may talk a bit, the routine will make the meals less of an event and more like family dining.
- Provide her high-protein snacks (e.g., cheese, nuts, boiled eggs, protein bars, turkey roll-ups), something she can grab out of the refrigerator without any preparation.
- Since she likes sweets make her semi-healthy high protein cookies or granola bars. (easily found on the internet)
- Consider home-delivered meals, even if it is only two or three times per week.
- It may or may not be possible, though anything you can do to increase her activity will likely also increase her appetite.
- You may also want to consider supplements.
These are just a few suggestions to explore. Changing the eating habits of another person can be challenging. Simply asking someone else to eat more does not usually work well, nor is it well-received. Eating needs to be part of daily routine, a habit. Turning some of these suggestions into habits may be your greatest opportunity for impact.
I wish you success as you help your mother discover healthy eating in her eighties.
Family Caregiving Advice Column
Written by CEO, Mary Haynor, this newsletter is packed with useful tips, resources and practices that will make the lives of family caregivers easier.Learn More...
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