Family caregivers are sometimes faced with the challenge of an elderly loved one who doesn’t want to eat. Whether the problem is caused by a simple decrease in appetite, or the senior becomes physically incapable of chewing and swallowing food—perhaps due to a stroke, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s—the dilemma remains: How do I get my loved one the nutrition they need?
One of the first places caregivers turn when faced with this issue is the supplement aisle of their local grocery store where row after row of brightly-labeled drink bottles promise a high-calorie, vitamin and mineral-infused dietary option for people who need an alternative to traditional meals. And, best of all, it comes in liquid form—ideal for seniors with chewing and swallowing issues.
But are nutritional supplement drinks (e.g. Ensure, Boost, etc.) really a healthy option for seniors?
According to experts from the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), the answer to this question is a resounding no. In February, the group released an additional five recommendations to a list they compiled for the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation’s Choosing Wisely campaign—an initiative created to help patients, doctors and caregivers make more educated healthcare decisions.
The updated list contains a directive about steering clear of nutritional supplements for seniors. “Although high-calorie supplements increase weight in older people, there is no evidence that they affect other important clinical outcomes, such as quality of life, mood, functional status or survival,” says the AGS.
Instead of searching for a magical bullet in the form of a shake or a pill to cure a senior’s dietary woes, the AGS recommends doctors and caregivers focus on finding non-medical ways to help an elder eat.
Caregivers and elder care experts recommend a variety of strategies for making mealtime easier for a senior who has trouble eating:
Check their medications: Antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs are just two examples of medications that can cause a senior’s appetite to decrease. Taking your loved one to the doctor for a “brown bag check-up” can determine if their prescriptions are contributing to eating issues and whether any changes can be made to their medication regimen. While you’re there, the physician can also ensure that your loved one’s appetite loss isn’t due to an underlying undiagnosed health condition such as hypothryroidism.
Prepare their favorite foods: Unless they are on a restricted diet for medical reasons, allowing a frail older adults to eat what they want (even if it’s a bowl of ice cream or a piece of cake) may be the best way to help them gain weight. Of course, it’s important to consult your loved one’s doctor prior to making any major dietary changes, especially if the senior is diabetic or is taking certain prescription medications, such as statins and ACE inhibitors, which can negatively interact with some foods.
Focus on flavor: Due to the natural aging process, older adults may lose their sense of taste and/or smell, which decreases the appeal of food. Combatting this issue can be as simple as adding extra flavor to their meals by using garlic, onions, olive oil, vinegar and spices.
Opt for all-natural smoothies: For caregivers of elders who have trouble chewing and swallowing solid food, smoothies are an option—as long as they’re homemade using fruits, vegetables and healthy sources of protein, such as milk, yogurt or protein powder. Here’s some additional information and a recipe for a healthy smoothie that can satisfy a senior’s sweet tooth.
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By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor