It can be one of the most frustrating times of your day: mealtime with an aging parent. You might be experiencing this frustration firsthand or hearing reports from your parent’s assisted living community. Maybe Mom is just not eating or complains excessively about the food. Perhaps Dad is causing a disruption in the dining room or doesn’t even want to make an appearance at mealtime. So, what recourse do you have when your senior loved one refuses to eat?
Understanding the Causes
Before you can find a solution to your parent’s eating difficulties, you need to work to learn the underlying cause. “The desire to eat comes from a mix of physical and emotional needs,” says Connie Chow, founder of DailyCaring.com, a website focused on useful tips and resources for those caring for seniors. “As people age, physical or life changes can cause a loss of appetite.”
Eating difficulties among the elderly can occur because of either physical or psychological causes. Chow cites these common causes:
- serious health conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer
- swallowing or chewing difficulties
- physical pain from dental or denture problems
- medication side effects
- lack of exercise
- emotional causes include depression, feeling loss of control over life
- an anxious caregiver making mealtime stressful or unpleasant
Identifying Physical Causes
Pinpointing an underlying physical cause and then correcting it may be the most expedient way to solve your parent’s aversion to eating. “Finding out if they’re having a dental problem could be as simple as asking if they have tooth or mouth pain,” says Chow. “If they have dementia and are unable to answer the question, watch their face while they eat. Grimacing or frowning while chewing usually indicates pain or discomfort. Once you know it’s a dental issue, a visit to the dentist is essential.”
If your parent’s eating problem is related to swallowing difficulties, it’s very important to identify that problem immediately due to its ramifications on your parent’s health and potential complications that could arise.
“Choking, difficulty swallowing, coughing while eating, or a gurgling sound in the voice are symptoms of a swallowing problem,” Chow reports. “Inhaling liquid or food into the lungs, called aspirating, sometimes isn’t noticeable until pneumonia develops.”
Chow stresses the importance of contacting your parent’s doctor immediately if you observe any of these symptoms, since a physical exam and specialized tests can be used to find the cause of the problem.
If medication is suppressing your parent’s appetite or changing how the food tastes, it’s likewise essential to talk to your parent’s doctor. There may be an alternative medication that doesn’t have side effects of this nature. However, if there is no alternative, Chow says, “then it’s more about finding other ways to make the food taste better,” perhaps by adding something to make the food sweet or savory.
Identifying Emotional Causes
If your parent is experiencing some form of sadness, depression, social isolation, anxiety or other emotional upheaval, it’s important to address the issue.
“Solving that issue or reducing the symptoms will help your older adult’s appetite return,” Chow says. “A good way to help someone through a difficult time is to simply be there and support them with your companionship. Eat with them, chat about pleasant topics, offer their favorite foods, and keep snacks on hand. This is especially helpful if your older adult has lost their spouse or is adjusting after a move to a senior living community.”
If the emotional issues are such that eating with others becomes stressful or disruptive, Chow suggests that the best solution may be for your parent to eat in a quieter, less social environment. “Keep them company so they won’t be completely alone, but be sure to minimize any other noise or distractions. This way, they can focus on eating and any behavior issues that come up won’t disturb anyone else.”
Changes in Eating Habits
Something to remember is that we start regenerating less taste buds once we hit middle age. This leads to blander-tasting foods. So, if your parent says, “Food just doesn’t taste as good as it used to,” they’re telling the truth! While appetite stimulants are an option it is recommended that you choose natural appetite stimulants if you choose to go that route because there is limited evidence to support the benefits of medications.
A way to make food more palatable for older adults is to add more flavor with what Chow calls healthy spices. Some of the spices that could boost taste for older diners, according to Everyday Health, include caraway in vegetables, dill seeds in rice and fish dishes; and increased use overall of citrus juices or flavored vinegars.
On her website, Chow offers several other ideas that may persuade seniors to eat, including serving smaller portions of more nutritious food. Another strategy is to switch from a regular schedule of meals to eating nutritious snacks throughout the day. The key is to dissipate the stress that occurs around having a large meal. If your parent has smaller meals and more snacks, the likelihood of frustration could be lessened.
Chow cautions against trying to force someone to eat, since that almost always leads to frustration and friction. “If someone is hovering over you trying to will you to eat, it’s not a very comfortable feeling,” she says. “Even if you’re acting out of concern and love, it’s going to backfire on you.”
Instead, Chow recommends setting a nice atmosphere for a meal. Put on some music and, if you suspect it’s going to cause conflict, don’t focus too much on the food itself. “Make it about the company and the conversation,” she concludes.
SHARE YOUR STORY: Does your parent refuse to eat? How are you handling the issue?