Older adults sometimes experience a loss of appetite that may adversely affect their health. Even foods they once loved no longer seem appealing. Caregivers of seniors with this problem will certainly want to explore ways to stimulate their loved ones’ appetites and get them eating again.
Causes of Loss of Appetite
There are several causes for loss of appetite in the elderly. One may be a poorer sense of taste due to a diminishing number of taste buds as we age. Our sense of smell also diminishes, and with it, potentially, our enjoyment of food.
Disinterest in food also can be caused by physical or cognitive maladies. Those with multiple medical conditions may be particularly vulnerable to poor appetite. If they are taking medications, they may experience loss of appetite as a side effect.
Weight Loss in Elderly
Loss of appetite can lead to substantial weight loss, which is a major health concern. “Weight loss, in many cases, is an indication of the wellness of the individual as a whole,” says Sarah Gorham, co-founder of Grind Dining, culinary consultants to senior assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities.
Weight loss is associated with physical illness, but it also can be caused by mental conditions such as depression. “We often see this with dementia,” Gorham explains. “As an individual goes through the stages of dementia, they experience a loss of control and independence, which can cause them to be depressed.”
Sometimes physical limitations make eating less pleasurable. For instance, dental problems or ill-fitting dentures can cause pain while eating. A trip to the dentist may alleviate the problem and make eating enjoyable again.
Another physical limitation, often present in those with dementia, is an inability to handle utensils when they eat. Grind Dining addresses this issue by working with senior living communities to adapt their menus.
“Our solution is to take whatever is on the assisted living menu—for instance, the cooked protein, carbohydrate, and vegetable—combine it and grind it into a base that can picked up with the fingers,” Gorham explains.
So, if the assisted living community is serving roast beef, sweet potatoes, and green beans, the Grind Dining method gives an individual with cognitive or neuromuscular impairment easy access to the food without the need to maneuver a knife or fork. “The resident is eating the same foods as everyone else and is no longer marginalized by being on a—quote—‘finger food’ diet,” Gorham says. “The food being eaten is as nutritionally complete as the original meal.”
Combating Loss of Appetite In Elderly
One strategy for seniors with limited appetite is to eat smaller but more frequent meals. “Having higher-protein or higher-calorie snacks through the day is also a good idea,” Gorham says.
Seniors can add calories to their diet by consuming a nutrition drink such as Ensure. If such a drink is not tolerated well, Gorham recommends trying smoothies made with fruits or vegetables. “You can really pack in the nutrients and even add in some protein powder,” she says.
Appetite Stimulants for the Elderly
There are some pharmaceutical options for stimulating appetite. However, with only limited evidence of their effectiveness and concerns about side effects, stimulating the appetite naturally may be much more desirable. Gorham offers the following suggestions:
- Use aromatherapy. This is a technique that Grind Dining uses successfully with dementia residents and other seniors. “What we do is put a sweet spice into a rice cooker, or if you’re at home, you can add a spice such as cinnamon, fennel, or cardamom to a small pot of water,” Gorham suggests. “Seniors walk into a room, and say, ‘Ooh, that smells good. I want to eat.’ ”
- Create a visually appealing presentation. “If someone sees something that looks good on the plate, they’ll be more inclined to eat it,” says Gorham.
- Spice things up. For seniors who are watching their sodium intake, replace the salt with other flavor enhancers. “We encourage the use of fresh herbs or spices as well as sweeteners, as much as is appropriate to the flavor profile you’re trying to create,” Gorham states. “This could include the addition of cinnamon, basil, cilantro, tarragon, or mint. As seniors taste buds change, food just doesn’t taste the same, so it may take some really bold flavors to stimulate the appetite.”
- Use a citrus-based sorbet at mealtimes. Gorham cites a research study that credits a sorbet appetizer for increasing the appetite of residents at a skilled nursing facility. “The science behind it is that tartness of the citrus activates the salvation gland, which makes someone want to eat.”
- Sweeten things up. Even seniors with weak appetites often like desserts, so Gorham suggests adding “sweet appeal” to a main course. For example: Coat some apples in a bit of cinnamon or some sugar and lemon juice; steam, poach, or bake the apples, and then add them to the dinner plate. “It’s very healthy, works as a garnish, and can be effective in increasing someone’s desire to eat,” Gorham says.
Tips such as these can help seniors rediscover the joy of eating. “Food is nutrition and nourishment, but it’s so much more,” says Gorham. “Anything we can do to create an engaging dining experience for a loved one or senior resident will add to their quality of life.”
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