Help your elderly parent maintain a healthy diet: Practical advice for eating well

How can you tell if your elderly parent is eating well? If you’re not with your elderly parent at every meal then it can be difficult to know if they’re eating properly or not. People’s appetites do diminish as they grow older, but healthy eating is as equally important in later life as it is when you’re younger.

Statistics published by Age UK state that one in ten elderly people suffer from malnutrition. Not following a healthy eating plan is the obvious cause, but undiagnosed medical conditions which prevent the body absorbing nutrients can also be a factor. In this article you’ll find practical advice on how to spot the signs your elderly parent isn’t eating properly and tips for getting them to eat better if they’re not eating healthily.

Healthy eating: Signs your elderly parent isn’t eating properly

The last thing you want is for your elderly parent to be that one out of ten that’s malnourished. To make sure that doesn’t happen you’ll need to look for signs that might indicate they’re not eating as well as they should.

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Take note though – some older people can be very sensitive about the subject and don’t respond well to constant questioning about what food they’ve consumed and when. That’s understandable as they’ve been preparing meals and feeding themselves, and probably you too, for years. So how can you check without being overly intrusive?

Contents of the fridge

You don’t need to turn into Sherlock Holmes and rummage through their fridge with a magnifying glass checking the use by dates on food items. Or take a candid photo of the contents with your mobile to see what’s gone and what’s not on your next visit. Although that said, the fridge can be a good place to start.

When you’re making your relative a cup of tea and go to get the milk, have a look to see if:-

  • There’s plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Any dairy products like butter, cheese and yoghurts
  • A meat or fish product they might have left there ready for their lunch or dinner
  • Basics like eggs

Many elderly people make as much use of their freezers as they do their fridges, especially when they have small appetites or are living alone. If you don’t see anything in the fridge that could be their next proper meal then ask them if they’d like you to get something out of the freezer for their dinner. Not only will it give you a legitimate reason for a rummage, you’ll find out if they’re planning on eating and what they’re thinking of having.

Physical changes

Just because your elderly parent’s fridge and cupboards are well stocked with the right food doesn’t necessarily mean they’re eating properly. If their healthy eating habits have gone to pot, while it might not be immediately apparent, you may start to notice physical changes in them. Those changes can be varied, but can include:

  • Weight loss or gain
  • Being more tired than usual
  • Lack of concentration
  • Becoming confused
  • Increased irritability
  • Slow recovery from minor illnesses like a cold
  • Swelling of their hands and feet

If your relative has been recommended a special diet by their doctor, because they have diabetes or kidney problems for example, they may not be happy with the changes they need to make and continue to eat as they always have done. That can be difficult to spot because while they may appear to be eating healthily, they’re actually being detrimental to their own health. If you notice any of the above symptoms, the best thing to do is get professional help from their doctor or dietician and accompany them to the appointment if possible.

Reasons why older people don’t always eat properly

When you discover that your elderly relative isn’t eating properly, you may well ask yourself why. That’s a good thing to do because it could be for one or more of any number of reasons. Once you have an answer to the why, you’ll be able to start making a positive difference and get your relative back to healthy eating.

Loss of Appetite – It’s normal for people’s appetites to get smaller when they get older. As we age, our bodies undergo physiological changes that can affect appetite – for example, our tastebuds change so that foods that once tasted good start to taste bland.  Medication for long term health conditions can also affect a person’s appetite as can undiagnosed medical conditions. If your parent has a very noticeable loss of appetite, it’s important to check with their doctor to rule out serious health conditions or medication side effects. If food tastes different to them because of medication they’re taking, they may be able to switch to a different type of medication would help decrease the side-effect.

Financial Strain – It’s a sad fact of our times that many older people skip eating properly because they’re worried about having enough money to pay for heating and other bills. With the cost of living rising as fast as the proverbial rocket, it may be their pension just isn’t enough to allow them to buy sufficient food. If they’re on a low income then they may be eligible for Pension Credit and other benefits that will help them make ends meet. You can find out more about benefits for the elderly on Gov.UK.

Shopping – Your elderly parent may not be eating properly because they can no longer manage to get to the shops on their own or can’t cope with the actual task of shopping. They may find being alone in a huge supermarket stressful and confusing. They may no longer be able to carry bags or manage to wheel their shopping trolley like they used to.

Not every elderly person is tech savvy enough to do their shopping online and get it delivered to the door. If your relative is struggling with shopping then you may need to accompany them and give them a hand to unpack the purchases when you take them home or assist them with ordering online. The added bonus of helping with the shopping is you’ll know, without having to ask, what food they have and how much of it they’re eating.

Cooking – Cooking for one can become tedious, especially if you’re more used to preparing meals for a family, or if you’ve experienced the loss of a spouse or life partner who traditionally took on the role of cook Many older people find eating alone depressing too and miss having company at meal times. As a consequence, instead of eating properly, they’ll often skip meals in favour of a quick snack or sandwich..

Health Related – Sometimes the reason your elderly parent isn’t eating well can be down to health-related issues. If they’re in the early stages of dementia they may forget to eat or forget they’ve eaten and eat again. Many older people wear dentures. If they’re ill-fitted or damaged then eating may be painful. Occasionally, eating can become a cause of anxiety if they’re worried about choking on their food. Depression can also be a cause of poor eating as well as overeating.

Tips for getting your ageing parent to eat well

Gentle persuasion: The first step you can take to encourage your elderly parent to eat better is a simple one. Talk to them. We all form habits and not always good ones. It may be that they don’t even realise they’re not eating well. If they have no appetite and no enthusiasm for preparing food, especially if they’re an elderly male, you may discover they’re quite content with a microwaved pie or a couple of sausages and a fried egg. The nutritional value of the food they’re eating isn’t something that’s often at the forefront of many elderly folks’ minds so you may need to give them a gentle reminder about getting their five a day.

Small and often: Your elderly parent may well be aware of the idiom – three square meals a day – and may well have followed it for most of their life. As they grow older, three large meals a day isn’t always the most adequate diet for them to adhere to, especially if they’re not very active or have been put on medication that needs to be taken with food. Four or even five small meals and snacks eaten throughout the day can help pep up their metabolism and increase a poor appetite.

Meal plans: If your elderly parent is ageing in place but struggling with their memory and cognition, help them to make a meal plan of food that’s nutritional but quick and easy to prepare. Leave the meal plan in the kitchen where they can see it so it acts as a reminder of what and when to eat.

Cook together: While it will involve some effort on your part, have a cooking day with your relative. Spend a few hours preparing batches of some of their favourite dishes and then freezing them. They’ll have what they like on hand and can finish the preparation process with just a few minutes in the microwave. If you don’t have time to batch cook, or aren’t very good at cooking, supermarket ready meals are an alternative. 

Meal delivery companies: If you and your parents have the budget, a healthy meal delivery service might be a good option. Meal delivery companies have witnessed remarkable improvements in recent years, catering to a wide range of tastes, and with many companies now prioritising high-quality ingredients, sourcing locally and emphasising freshness and nutritional value. there are also several that specialise in meals for elderly people. You or your parent can choose what appetises them from an extensive menu of nutritionally balanced meals and then send an order either online or over the phone and have them delivered to their door. They can be kept in the fridge or frozen for later use. When your elderly parent isn’t up to cooking and you can’t be there to do it for them, this kind of meal delivery service is a godsend. And, if your parent has a good selection stored in the freezer, they can choose to eat whichever they find appetising at that particular moment and have a decent meal with minimal effort.

In summary

It’s vital that people continue a healthy eating regimen as they grow older, and adjust it accordingly as their nutritional needs evolve. Eating badly can cause serious health problems, disrupting the lives of those around them and shortening their lifespan. It may seem strange and difficult to comprehend that in this, the 21st century, malnutrition among the UK’s elderly population is on the increase. By reading this article and caring about what your elderly parent is eating, you’re already on the right track to make sure your relative doesn’t become part of those sad statistics.

Common questions

  • What foods stimulate taste buds in the elderly?

Zingy fresh citrus flavours are good for stimulating jaded taste buds. Also a dash of vinegar or mild spices can make food more palatable.

  • How many times a day should an elderly person eat?

Little and often is one of the best ways for elderly people to eat so four to five small meals a day is good. But that said, it also depends on the elderly person’s personal preference and regular dietary habits.

  • What is the best breakfast for elderly people?

Cereals that are high in fibre but have low sugar content, such as porridge oats, are a good start to the day especially if accompanied with a small portion of fresh fruit. Remember to consider any dietary restrictions or health conditions that the individual may have. It’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian for personalised advice based on specific needs.

  • Are there any dietary supplements recommended for ageing parents?

There are many dietary supplements on the market, but you should always consult with your relative’s doctor before introducing them to their diet as they may not be compatible with some of the medication they are taking. That being said, commonly recommended dietary supplements for older adults include Vitamin D, Calcium, Probiotics and Omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Are there any foods that elderly people should avoid or limit?

Elderly people should limit their intake of salty and sugary foods especially if they have high blood pressure or suffer from diabetes.

  • What are the signs of malnutrition in an elderly person?

The signs of malnutrition in an elderly person are lack of appetite, unexplained weight loss or gain, lethargy, confusion and irritability.

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