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Barriers to Adequate Nutrition in Seniors

Gesunde Ernährung

Some people think that by the time you’ve reached a certain age, you’ve earned the right to eat whatever you want.  A change in dietary habits at the age of 85 isn’t likely to have an impact on one’s health- or so goes the commonly held belief in our society.

We know that the underlying causes of decreased cognition may be related to chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes- conditions which are heavily influenced by diet.  But many seniors have no choice but to eat what is convenient or tolerable. It’s good to be mindful of some of the challenges seniors face in managing their own health, because when we know better, we do better.

Here are some barriers to good nutrition:

  1. Isolation-  Many seniors do not drive or are not able to go to the grocery store.  They rely on others to bring food in.  And cooking for one and eating alone is not an exciting event.  Many people just don’t bother.
  2. Dentition-  Painful mouths, missing teeth, poorly fitting dentures lead to lack of regular eating and difficulty chewing.  Good, whole foods (raw nuts, fruits with skin, vegetables) can be hard to bite and chew.  Many forego the effort.
  3. Medication side effects- Medications can have a big impact on appetite and can also alter the taste of food.
  4. Lack of cooking skills- Many people lose a spouse who once did all the cooking. This is a challenge to someone who has never enjoyed or learned how to prepare food.
  5. Memory loss- People with memory impairment are at a tremendous risk for malnutrition.  They can’t remember what they ate, when they last ate, when food expires, if they left the stove or oven on…
  6. Arthritis- Opening packages and preparing meals can be a painful challenge for someone with degenerative joint disease.  Sometimes eating just isn’t worth the hassle.
  7. Depression- Depression isn’t always sadness, sometimes it’s apathy.  “I don’t feel like eating” or “I don’t care if I eat or not” can be common expressions from someone who has depression.
  8. Decreased knowledge about nutrition- Many seniors have no idea that cholesterol, sugar, and saturated fats contribute to chronic disease.  Labels that mislead consumers (like low-fat, fortified, enriched) may seem like healthy choices, but they are instead foods that have been stripped of their original forms and nutritional value.
  9. Digestion problems- Food can be a form of discomfort for people with digestion problems.  Eating is an unpleasant chore.  Inadequate nutrition is a foregone conclusion.
  10. Taste bud changes- Aging changes the way we taste things.  We have far fewer taste buds in our 70s than we had in our 30s.  Many seniors simply prefer sugary and salty foods because they are easier to taste.

What are some strategies we can implement to improve nutritional intake for our seniors- especially those living out in the community where isolation and access are major barriers?

I can’t help but think a senior-focused food truck touring through neighborhoods would be quite popular… I’ll get right on that 🙂 

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  1. I’m a care provider, for my 92 yr, old mother in law. We have brought her back from near death, green smoothies, creama wheat, bananas, ensure. She has the strength of a young person, although cripple, we have given her the best care possible. No nursing home because they would not care enough. In her own house.

    • Good for you. I think there is something in your message… a relationship between getting the right nutrients and being cared for by people who love you.

  2. People who have cognition and memory challenges can benefit from having visual cues to help them understand their choices. Asking someone who cannot remember or communicate well “what would you like for a snack?” is likely to receive a “I’m not hungry” reply because the person can’t recall their options. I’ve created visual choice boards of basic snacks, drinks choices to use as visual cues of what’s on offer. Too many choices any be confusing, so limit the number of options to what your loved one can comprehend. Message me at randi.sargent@bigpicturecare.com if anyone would like a sample choice board PDF to try out.

  3. I work at a nursing home and we are absolutely mindful about the nutrition given to our seniors. We understand all of the above reasons you mentioned which contribute to seniors lacking adequate nutrition and cater accordingly. We actually have restaurant style dining with many different options for the various eating habits of our seniors, but all food is healthy and up to the nutritional standards that they need to thrive. We also have cooking classes and educate them on proper nutrition and eating habits, and you’d be surprised, but those classes actually turn out to be very fun for all involved!

    Thank you for writing this article and educating people on the importance of this!

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