How to Help an Elder Who Doesn’t Want to Eat

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.


Heart-Healthy Dinner and Dessert Recipes from a Cardiologist
A Senior-Friendly Grocery Shopping List
5 High-Calorie Foods for Seniors
Think Twice Before Giving Elders Nutritional Drinks and Supplements
9 Nutrition Tips During Cancer Treatment
Taking a Bite Out of Senior Diet Myths
7 Simple Ways to Put Fruits and Veggies Back Into a Senior’s Diet

By Anne-Marie Botek, Editor


Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

It's their heart that matters

Charmaine C.
Charmaine C3 years ago

Thank you for the article. This is a very difficult situation to deal with. Often carers of the aged end up treating their charges like small children and butt heads with them over food and discipline. As a befriender I see these things and can do nothing about it other than to print out articles like this one to leave on the table for someone to hopefully read and become better informed.

Val M.
Val M3 years ago


Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper3 years ago


Roxana Saez
Roxana S3 years ago

This is when I actually back down and give the okay for foods on the "naughty" list to be thrown into the menu schedule. Been so good in making healthy choices at home that when we finally did make it round to Wing Stop after so many years of avoiding that place...the food wasn't as desirable anymore especially when they don't get the order quite right.

Camilla Vaga
Camilla V3 years ago


Jeannet Bertelink
Jeannet B3 years ago

thanks for advice

Danuta Watola
Danuta W3 years ago

thank you for sharing

Leslie W.
Leslie W3 years ago

I went through this process with my mother. She started eating less and less, not hungry, at all. I fixed her favorites and talked to her doctors and nutritionist and anyone else I thought could help. I worried and even resorted to nagging, even if both of us didn't like it. I checked her medicines to see if they would cause the problems and nothing helped. She had multiple health problems and her quality of life had went down. She ended up in the hospital, and when she did the test showed she had a fast moving cancer. The timing of it showed that she stopped eating as the cancer got worse. The hospice workers told me that people often stop eating as their bodies start to shut down. Get them to a doctor that will take this symptom seriously. The hospice are a great help and have good information, bless them. They also told me that they don't feel the hunger the same way we do, so when they are at this stage there is no need to nag or worry about it. Offer their favorites and if they don't eat, it's part of the process and not painful.

Michelle M.
Michelle M3 years ago

Very interesting and helpful article and comments. Thank you all for sharing ;0)