Malnutrition is a serious health problem for seniors, and is more common than you’d think. Learn the signs and causes of malnutrition and take steps to ensure the seniors in your life are eating a balanced, healthy diet.
Problems caused by malnutrition
Malnutrition in seniors can cause serious health problems, such as:
- A weakened immune system, making them prone to viruses and infections
- Muscle weakness, which can cause falls and fractures
- Poor wound healing
Malnutrition can also contribute to a loss of appetite and disinterest in eating — which only makes the situation worse.
Seniors with serious illnesses, dementia sufferers, or those who have recently lost weight are especially vulnerable to the effects of malnutrition.
Causes of malnutrition
Malnutrition seems pretty straightforward – not enough food or not enough nutritious food. But, the cause of malnutrition in seniors can be more complicated and is often the result of a combination of physical, social and psychological problems.
- Health issues – Many health concerns of seniors can decrease appetite or create trouble with eating. Chronic illnesses, medications, dental issues and difficulty with swallowing can all cause a loss of interest in food.
- Dietary Restrictions – Anyone who has been placed on a restricted diet (with limits on fat, salt, protein, sugar, etc) to manage a medical condition may end up eating inadequately.
- Financial issues – Some seniors on a fixed income may have trouble affording groceries, especially if they’ve been prescribed expensive medications.
- Loneliness – Seniors who live alone may lose interest in cooking and preparing food, as they don’t enjoying eating meals by themselves.
- Depression – Reduced mobility, failing health, grief and other factors can all contribute to depression – which can cause a loss of appetite.
- Alcoholism – Heavy drinking can interfere with digestion and the absorption of nutrients. If alcohol is being substituted for meals, malnourishment is inevitable.
The initial signs of malnutrition can be difficult to spot.
- Observe their eating habits – Share meals with them at their home on ordinary days, not just special occasions. If they live alone, find out how they buy food and get it home. If they are in a care facility, visit at mealtimes to observe.
- Monitor weight – Get in the habit of helping them monitor their weight on a home scale. Check how their clothing fits, and look for any changes.
- Research their medications – Many drugs can adversely affect digestion, nutrient absorption and appetite.
- Watch for other signs – Malnutrition can also cause seemingly unrelated problems, like dental issues, easy bruising and slow wound healing.
What can you do?
A little help can go a long way and a few small changes can make a big difference to a senior’s health and independence.
Start a conversation with their doctor. Work with their doctor to identify and address and issues that may be contributing to their weight loss. This may include removing restrictions from their diet, changing medications, or treating dental issues. Ask doctors about nutrition screenings and recommended supplements.
Make a restricted diet more enticing. Encourage them to make up for lost salt and fat with extra herbs, spices, lemon juice, vinegar, etc. Healthier food doesn’t have to be bland.
Encourage snacking. A simple snack, like a piece of fruit or cheese, a spoonful of peanut butter, or a smoothie can provide needed nutrients and calories.
Help with saving on food. If they shop for groceries, encourage them to check store fliers for sales, plan meals and write a shopping list. Help them research the costs of bulk goods, and find stores and restaurants that offer senior discounts.
Make meals a social event. If possible, drop by for meals regularly or invite them to your home for dinner often. Encourage them to join groups, clubs or social programs where they can eat with others.
Encourage physical activity. Regular exercise, even light, like a walk around the block — can stimulate the appetite.
Consider help. It may be necessary to bring in outside help. Many home care companies will help seniors shop for groceries or assist them in preparing meals. Meal delivery services like “Meals On Wheels” and other community services are also an option.