Aging comes with so many changes in our loved ones’ eating habits. Health issues may lead to decreased appetites. Mobility concerns may prevent individuals from going to the supermarket. A long hospital stay may cause aging adults who once loved to cook to feel uncomfortable in the kitchen. In our conversation, Jennifer Cholewka, RD, CNSC, CDN, who serves as a Certified Clinically Advanced Nutrition Coordinator at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, shares signs that our aging loved ones may not be eating well, nutritious and simple snacks that we can help them stock, and tips for encouraging our loved ones to eat healthy meals.
One of the challenges of aging in place is that we often don’t know how our loved ones are taking care of themselves – and that includes good nutrition. What should individuals consider in order to support their loved ones?
First, consider your loved one’s access to food, which could be impacted because of their socioeconomic status, mobility, or their ability or inclination to cook. If you’d like to make sure their shelves and refrigerators are stocked with good food, I recommend including easy and convenient food options that are high in protein and require minimal preparation, like Greek yogurt, peanut butter, cheese, and hard boiled eggs.
For aging adults who have trouble eating healthful meals, I suggest encouraging them to eat meals that include protein; healthy fats, like olive oil, sunflower oil, walnuts, and pistachios; and fiber, which can be found in vegetables. It’s best to eat meals that feature a lot of colors, like green, red, and orange, and not just brown and white. Older adults may also find it helpful to restructure the idea of a meal – and transition from three big meals per day to five to six smaller meals. This is especially useful for individuals who have decreased appetites and find big meals overwhelming.
Older adults also need to stay on top of their hydration – especially during the summer and also if they live alone.
How can individuals help their loved ones cook balanced meals?
Some older adults aren’t comfortable cooking for themselves because they rarely did it in the past. Other older adults may like to cook, but have trouble readjusting to cooking if they just returned from rehab or the hospital. In that case, I always recommend that loved ones visit and help the older adult cook and get comfortable in the kitchen again. We see a higher incidence of depression in older patients who used to love to cook and don’t do so anymore, so helping them get back to cooking, when possible, is very important.
What are some warning signs that our loved one’s nutrition may not be good?
If you notice that your loved one is rapidly losing weight, help may be needed. When you visit them at home, take a peek inside their fridge and cabinet to see what they have on hand. Finding only juice, soda, condiments, pudding, jello, and canned foods that were not recently purchased can be a red flag. Individuals should be eating vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish, too. Other warning signs include a lot of spoiled food in the refrigerator, if your loved one can’t remember when they last ate, and if they are getting sick more often than usual.
How can caretakers help manage the diet of aging adults who have diabetes?
First, make sure your loved one knows when to take their medicine and understands the importance of taking it consistently. Some people think that diabetes means completely restricting bread and dessert, but it’s more about portion control and balance. It’s also important to make sure your loved one knows to time your medicines with your meals and not to skip meals.
The American Diabetes Association’s website and the American Heart Association’s website both have great educational material and free recipes that I encourage individuals with diabetes and their loved ones to explore.
What are a few nutritious meal services that you recommend?
Epicured is a prepared meal delivery service that is great for people who have IBD or Crohn’s Disease. It is low in FOMAP (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols) and gluten-free. Hello Fresh is good, too. I also encourage older individuals to use Fresh Direct, which can deliver a combination of fresh snacks and prepared foods.