Help a Loved One Eat Right to Recover From Illness

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on October 14, 2013
3 min read

When a senior is sick or recovering from an injury, it's important for them to eat a healthy diet. Getting enough calories from nutritious foods can help their recovery. It will help their bodies heal and give them the mental and physical energy they need.

"The most important thing is to ensure that their immune system is working at its best," says Madeleine Glick, MS, RD, a dietitian at Greenwich Woods, a long-term care facility in Greenwich, Conn.

1. Don’t assume they’ll eat when hungry. Even when they're feeling well, many seniors don't have a great appetite. As we get older, we lose taste buds, making some foods taste blander. Sometimes dental problems can also limit what we can chew.

When sick or recovering, many seniors are even less likely to eat. Many illnesses cause our bodies to lose appetite, says Mary Fennell Lyles, MD. She teaches gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine.

Some prescription medications can further squash the urge to eat.

2. Count their calories. How many calories should they be eating? Dietitians figure out how many calories an older adult needs by converting their weight in pounds to kilograms (divide weight in pounds by 2.2), then planning on 25 to 35 calories per kilogram.

For example, a 130-pound person recovering from a broken hip might need about 2,068 calories a day. (Divide 130 by 2.2 to get their weight in kilograms. Then multiply that by 35 calories to get the calories in a day.)

A person who is overweight or has diabetes needs closer to 25 calories per kilogram. For seniors who are ill or recovering, dietitians commonly recommend 35 calories per kilogram. Getting too few calories can slow healing and leave an ill senior without the energy to work on physical therapy or get moving.

Talk to your senior’s doctor or dietitian for guidance on how many calories your senior needs.

3. Work with their favorites. Glick finds out which foods the people she works with like best so she can tailor meals to their tastes. You’re more likely to get your senior to eat by serving their favorites, she says.

"If someone just wants to eat pudding all day, it may not be what you think they should be eating, but maybe you can work with that," she says.

Glick often fortifies favorite foods to improve nutrition. She’ll add whole milk or protein powder to the pudding, for example.

Offering nutrition supplement drinks as snacks between meals can also help you meet their calorie needs. However, the drinks should be used as supplements, not meal replacements.

4.Focus on healing nutrients. When feeding your loved one, choose foods with nutrients that help healing. Foods rich in vitamin C and zinc are particularly helpful for seniors recovering from any type of skin wound, Glick says.

  • Vitamin C. Because supermarket juices can lose their vitamin C content, she recommends whole citrus fruits. Try tangerines, juice squeezed at home, or homemade smoothies that include vitamin C-rich fruits such as strawberries.
  • Zinc. This mineral is found in fortified breakfast cereal, beef, crab and other shellfish, and chicken.
  • Vitamin D. Found in milk, salmon, and tuna, vitamin D may also help seniors as they recover. According to studies, having enough vitamin D can mean a lower risk of falls and fractures with falls. It may be a good idea to give your senior vitamin and mineral supplements. Talk to their doctor.

5. Keep them hydrated. When you're hydrated, your kidneys work well, and kidneys need to be in top form to deal with illness and healing. Lyles recommends that the people she works with place a full pitcher of water in the fridge in the morning, and to try to drink it all by the end of the day.

If your senior isn't able to get up and around, keep a water bottle by their bed or favorite chair. Water-rich fruits such as watermelon and broth soups can also help ward off dehydration.

6. Get help. If your loved one loses 5% or more of her body weight, talk to her doctor, Lyles says. They can check for underlying problems, including digestion issues or depression. These problems can make it harder to maintain body weight and heal.