“When is the Last Time You Ate?”—What to Do When Aging Parents Struggle with Meals

Have you noticed that your parent seems to have lost their interest in eating or doesn’t seem to be eating on a regular basis? Perhaps you’ve noticed that ice cream and cereal are the only two foods you find in the kitchen?

While it is common for metabolism and appetite to change as we age, it is important to ensure that your loved ones are getting the nutrition they need to stay strong and healthy over time.

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We’ve put together six questions to ask your aging parent or loved one if you are concerned about their eating habits or lack of appetite.

1. Are you feeling hungry?

With a slower metabolism and less mobility, many older adults may find themselves less hungry as they begin to need fewer calories on a daily basis.

If your parent is not getting the nutrition they need because of a lack of appetite, try encouraging him or her to eat smaller but more nutrition-dense meals throughout the day, and to keep moving. As a helpful benchmark, the USDA recommends that seniors eat at least 3.5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day and participate in at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.

Prescribed medications can also have side effects that impact appetite. Check in with your parent’s doctor—they may suggest different medications or something else to help.

2. Do you have pain or discomfort when chewing?

Problems with chewing become more common as we age. If your parent is experiencing discomfort, talk to their dentist directly so they can check teeth, gums or dentures.

You can also encourage your parent to eat softer foods, prepare soups and stews, and to drink smoothies or protein drinks to keep their caloric intake up.

3. Does food taste different to you?

Changes or a loss of smell and taste are simply a part of aging, but other factors including dental problems, smoking, allergies or medication side effects can also be the culprit.

If your parent is struggling with lack of taste, the National Institute on Aging suggests adding color and texture to make food more visually interesting, and adding strong spices or flavors such as mustard, hot pepper, onions, garlic or ginger.

Look into vitamin B supplements, which can have an impact on taste buds. (Always consult your parent’s physician before starting on any nutritional supplement or vitamin.) Your parent’s doctor may also be able to help with changes in smell and taste.

4. Have you been shopping for groceries and cooking meals for yourself?

There are many reasons why an older adult’s energy levels may be low, including an ongoing illness or condition, trouble sleeping, reduced mobility, or even feeling blue. If tiredness is causing your parent to struggle with eating or leaving the house, look for signs of depression – you may also need to seek out counseling or support groups.

Hiring Home Care is a helpful solution if your parent needs assistance getting to the grocery store or if they don’t have the energy or ability to cook. Seniors At Home Caregivers can assist with transportation, shopping and help with meal preparation.

If your parent is homebound, it can help to call the Department of Aging and Adult Services for your parent’s local county (San Francisco, Marin,Sonoma, San MateoSanta Clara) who can connect you with a Home Delivery Meals program in the county. Seniors At Home also offers meal delivery programs that can help qualifying seniors, including Kosher Meals on Wheels for those who prefer a kosher diet.

Most large grocery store chains like Safeway, Whole Foods, and Costco all provide delivery services in California, and many of them deliver for free, so it’s a good idea to look into what services your parent’s local markets provide. Meal delivery services such as Munchery and Gobble can also bring fresh, balanced meals to the door.

5. Would you like some company?

Meals are more enjoyable when shared with others. For older adults who live by themselves dining alone can be a dull or lonely experience.

If possible, join your parent for a meal when you can. Offer to take them to a restaurant or cook for them at home to change-up their regular routine. You can also recruit friends, family members and neighbors to visit or dine with your mom or dad when you’re unavailable.

Volunteer visitors can also provide excellent company to your parent. Seniors At Home offers a number of volunteer visitor programs including Senior Companions and Palliative Care Volunteers. Learn more about our volunteer services.

6. Are you struggling to afford the cost of food?

If your parent is living on a reduced or low-income, the cost of food can take a toll on their finances. Look for help in the form of food delivery programs, food banks and pantries in your local area. Leah’s Pantry, for example, is a helpful resource which provides cooking classes for low-income adults.

All JFCS Seniors At Home locations offer a food pantry which low-income seniors can shop in for free. For those who are homebound and living in San Francisco, our volunteers will deliver a bag of groceries once a week nutritionally balanced ingredients for a meal.

Miriam Markowitz, Director of Seniors At Home’s Nutrition Programs, says, “We want to see all older adults have access to a balanced and nutritious diet, regardless of their mobility or income level. Good nutrition is fundamental in order for seniors to live healthy, safe and independent lives.”

If your parent’s lack of appetite persists, be sure to speak to their doctor in order to rule out any serious health concerns.

To learn more about Seniors At Home’s Home Care and nutrition programs, or with any questions related to aging and senior care, call us at 415-449-3700