It may take a little work to figure out what's keeping your loved one from eating, but once you do, you can help.
Two experts -- Mary Fennell Lyles, MD, and geriatrics dietitian Dixie Yow, RD, offer these tips to make sure your loved one is getting the nutrition they need.
1. Assess the Situation
"You have to investigate and find the root of the problem first," Yow says. Talk to your loved one and, if possible, watch her in her home to figure out why she’s not eating more.
Once you have it figured out, brainstorm solutions together. For example, if arthritis stops her from opening cans or chopping veggies, help by transferring pre-cut foods into easy-to-open containers.
If you see that she forgets to eat, an alarm clock or phone call may remind her. Other common hurdles:
- Some prescription medications can lower appetite. Ask her doctor about switching medications.
- Ill-fitting dentures or other dental woes can make chewing hard. Head to the dentist for some help.
2. Plan for Protein
Stock the fridge and pantry with high-protein foods. Protein helps slow the muscle loss and weakness that happens with age, Lyles says. Adults usually need between 46-56 grams of protein a day, but check with your loved one’s doctor about her needs.
Lyles recommends ready-to-eat protein options that require no preparation.
- Peanut butter
Lyles especially likes Greek yogurt. It is packed with protein (up to 18 - 20 grams per serving) but usually doesn’t leave an older person uncomfortably full.
She also recommends eggs. Hard-boil a batch on the weekend and store them in the refrigerator for easy meals during the week. Lyles says she tells most of the people she sees to eat an egg a day. One egg has a touch more than 6 grams of protein.
3. Make Fruits and Veggies Easy to Eat
Fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber that prevent disease. If your loved one has tooth trouble, whip up fruit smoothies. Turn them into a complete meal by adding soy or whey protein powder, Lyles suggests.
Yow recommends cooking veggies in microwave steam bags, a quick option that makes carrots and green beans easier to chew. Microwaved sweet potatoes are a soft but simple super food. They have lots of beta-carotene, which helps the immune system.
4. Go for Whole Grains
These may protect the heart, and also relieve constipation, a common complaint among less-active seniors, Yow says.
Look for whole-grain crackers, cereals, and breads. Other easy whole-grain options:
- Microwaveable brown rice, which cooks in minutes
- Oatmeal, which can be prepared in advance and stored in the fridge
5. Honor Food Preferences
"You’re going to be much more likely to get them to eat something that they like," Lyles says.
She says many older adults may tend to eat less beef and other meats, in part because they can be tough to chew. They also say they're turned off by large portions. Smaller meals more often may be helpful.
Other seniors find food bland because people lose some taste buds as they age, Yow says. They may like foods that are strongly flavored. To make food more appealing, try seasonings such as garlic, pepper, or zingy vinegars.
6. Come in Peace
Try to avoid arguing about food. "Instead of fussing at her and saying, 'You’re not eating. You need to eat,' try to encourage her in a positive manner," Yow says.
You’re more likely to succeed with simple, upbeat tactics. Try a friendly, daily phone call to remind her that it's lunch time.
7. Make It Social
Seniors tend to eat more when they're with friends, says Lyles. Try going out together for restaurant meals. But remember that super-sized restaurant portions can be a turnoff.
Lyles suggests visiting restaurants that offer small plate options or tapas. A modest amount of food that’s carefully prepared and presented may be more appealing. Or have the server box up part of the meal to save for later.
8. Consider Supplemental Beverages
If your loved one isn't getting enough nutrition from foods, they may be able to get some from drinks. Nutrition supplement drinks may be a good way to get calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
But think of them as supplements and not meal replacements, Lyles and Yow say. Don't offer them with meals. Limit the drinks to snack time. You don’t want them to fill up on drinks. You want them to eat as much real food as possible first, she says. To make the drinks tastier, try serving them cold.
9. Shop Together
Go with your senior to the grocery store when you can. Talk about what she likes and doesn't like to eat. You can suggest healthy choices -- like whole-grain crackers instead of saltines -- and help her read labels.
"If you involve seniors in the shopping and food preparation, they're going to be more likely to eat the food you prepare," Yow says.
10. Get Her Moving
Take your loved one out for a walk if she’s able. If not, get her up and moving around the house.
"Exercise and movement do stimulate appetite, so they always help," Yow says.