My grandmother would have been 101 years old this week. My family was lucky enough that she stayed happy and healthy until the ripe old age of 99 so that she could share her wonderful scones, a great big smile and a hug every time we visited. Having older people as a part of our lives is important in so many ways, and to make sure they stay healthy and strong as they get older they need to continue to eat well.
Caring for an older frail person
With all the talk about obesity it is hard to imagine that there is a part of our community that is malnourished, but a large number of older people are not eating well enough to stay healthy. Australian studies have found that around 1 in 10 frail older people are malnourished. Many people have the idea that it is ‘normal’ to lose weight as they get older, but actually this makes them more likely to get sick and much harder to get well again.
People also often say that they don’t need to eat as much as they get older but in fact there are some things we need more of once we’re over 70: protein to help stop muscles wasting, calcium (see my healthy bones blog entry), folate and zinc which help in healing, as well as fluid and fibre which help avoid constipation. Also, many older people that don't go outside often don't get enough Vitamin D (see a great explanation at The Scoop on Nutrition).
There are lot of different reasons why an older person may not eat enough. It might be physical, like dentures that don’t fit properly, or difficulty opening packets; it may be emotional as they don’t like eating on their own; or they may not be able to smell or taste the food so not feel like eating. All these reasons add up to eating less, in which case it is really important that the food they do eat is packed full of energy and nutrients.
Ideas to make every mouthful count
Older people often can’t eat big meals because they have a poor appetite and get full quickly. Encourage them to eat at least three meals each day and high protein snacks as well if they’re not eating big meals.
Make sure snacks have protein like cheese and crackers, English muffin with ricotta or baked beans and toast.
If chewing is difficult suggest some softer foods like casseroles, fish or eggs.
Remind them to drink between meals as older people don’t get as thirsty but still need to drink.
Encourage desserts, particularly ones with a milk base like rice pudding or crème caramel with tinned fruit.
Help older people eat with others; if you’re going to visit, take a meal and share it or go out for a meal. Encourage them to go to community centres that provide lunch at least once a week.
Make sure food is stored and reheated properly and that they remember how to use kitchen equipment like their microwave.
If you are worried that the person you are caring for is not able to prepare their own meals try some frozen meals or have food delivered by Meals on Wheels or Tender Loving Care. If someone is really not eating well, a drink-based supplement might be useful; like Sustagen or Ensure which are available at the supermarket and chemist. Two glasses in a day has the same energy and protein as a roast meal. They also provide vitamins and minerals just like a balanced meal.
Do you have any tips for helping older people eat well? Leave a comment below to share your ideas.