A gradually decreased appetite may be a normal part of aging, but if your loved one is experiencing a significant loss of appetite, it’s nothing to dismiss lightly. Appetite loss can quickly lead to unintentional weight loss and other health problems, such as malnutrition, which have been proven to increase the risk of many problems, including a greater likelihood of dying.
Common complications of unintentional weight loss and malnutrition in older adults:
- Impaired immune system
- Increased muscle weakness
- Increased risk of falls and hip fractures
- Slower wound healing
- More frequent pressure sores
- Longer hospitalizations
- Decreased quality of life
What Leads to Appetite Loss?
There are many reasons your loved one may be experiencing changes in their appetite or eating habits.
- Medical conditions including heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, dementia, and many others.
- Side effects of medications
- Changes in sense of taste and/or sense of smell
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Dental problems, such as issues with dentures or tooth pain
- Impaired dexterity (makes it take longer to eat, so your loved one feels full before they’ve eaten their meal, or the food becomes less appetizing over that much time)
- Grief (including loss of a loved one, independence, or their home)
How to Help an Aging Loved One with Appetite Loss
Depending on what’s causing your loved one’s lack of appetite, you’ll want to take different approaches.
Figure out what’s behind the loss of appetite:
- Ask your loved one what’s going on.
- Talk with their doctor or health care professional.
Prevent and treat constipation.
- Which medical/health conditions could be affecting appetite?
- Would a consult with a registered dietician be helpful?
- Ask for a medication review.
- Compile a list of all prescription and over-the-counter medications and supplements. (The cause could be medication side effects)
- If they have dietary restrictions that prevent them from eating what they want, ask about the pros & cons of liberalizing their diet.
- Keep a record of bowel movements.
Promote a daily rhythm
- Increase physical activity and promote regular exercise, such as a short daily walk, swim, or fitness class.
- Stick to a regular eating schedule so the body’s ready to eat at mealtime.
Keep mealtime pleasant
- Eat with others.
Present food in an attractive manner, on nice dishes, in good lighting.
Avoid hounding your loved one about eating.
Cook flavorful, fragrant meals that will please their taste buds and serve as an appetite stimulant.
- Work with friends, neighbors, family members, faith or community organizations, or paid home care aides to provide companionship during meals.
Focus on their favorite food choices to increase appetite.
Consider essential oils, such as sweet orange or lavender, to promote a calm atmosphere or stimulate appetite.
- Use plenty of pepper, herbs, and spices (extra salt and sugar aren’t usually recommended)
Make eating easier
- Opt for a smaller portion size
Use adaptive plates, bowls, cups, or silverware if needed to enable your loved one to eat more quickly.
- Five or six small meals per day are less overwhelming than three larger ones.
Consider mail-order meal prep services to make it easier to cook or eat hot, healthy meals.
- Ask the doctor about an occupational therapy evaluation to find the right adaptive equipment.
Make every bite count
- Choose nutrient-rich foods
- Boost calories where possible. For example:
Consider liquid dietary supplements.
- Add high-calorie foods, such as extra butter, peanut butter, cheese, or sour cream. Switch from skim to whole milk. Use cream or liquid supplements for coffee, etc
- Drink supplements after – or at least two hours before – a meal.
Communicate with the care team
- If your loved one is in a senior care facility, such as a nursing home, assisted living, memory care, or group home:
- Talk to the management about your observations and concerns.
- Ask if they have noticed any changes in your loved one’s weight or appetite and whether they have any plans or recommendations.
- Some facilities will, but others won’t so don’t just assume they’re taking care of it.
- If your loved one receives home care services:
- Be sure the caregivers understand the plan and know how to best support your loved one’s nutritional needs.
Pay Attention, Act Early, and Customize Your Approach
As a caregiver, it’s important to pay attention to your aging loved one’s weight and appetite. When you notice a decline in the earlier stages, you have a better chance to respond promptly and intervene before serious complications occur.
The most effective ways for caregivers like yourself to help your loved one with appetite loss will depend on the reasons behind it and may require an assortment of interventions, which should be tailored to your loved one’s specific needs and preferences.
A Dementia and Memory care professional who has 23 years of experience working with seniors suffering from dementia.
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