Elderly parents and grandchildren | Explaining Dementia to children

If you are caring for an elderly loved one, you might be concerned about their lack of appetite and decreased interest in food recently. Why is Grandad no longer interested in the foods he used to wolf down with gusto?

His portion sizes don’t look like enough to keep a sparrow alive! – Is he getting enough? Are his nutritional needs being met? Should I be worried? Is this normal?

Lack of appetite is quite common

A declining appetite is a common problem for older people, and if unchecked it can lead to weight loss and nutritional deficiencies, but knowing the reason behind a reduced appetite and knowing how to encourage an elderly loved one to eat a healthy and balanced diet can help ease your worries, and ensure that the person in your care can continue to live a healthy, fulfilled life.

In the 1980’s this decrease in appetite among the elderly was described as the ‘anorexia of ageing’, and it is a condition that is estimated to affect 15% to 30% of older people, with higher rates being seen in women, those living in nursing homes and people who are hospitalised – as well as with increasing age. There are many changes that occur as we get older that can contribute to this loss of appetite, including changes in social circumstance, illness, chronic disease and changes in physiological function.

Loss of appetite in the elderly | why is grandad not eating

Physiological Changes That Can Affect An Older Person’s Appetite

When we get older our bodies undergo physiological changes that can affect our appetite such as changes to the digestive system, hormonal changes and changes to our sense of smell, taste and vision – not to mention an increased chance of experiencing ill health and painful medical conditions. A third of people over the age of 65 experience some reduction in saliva production, which can cause difficulties with eating, and although this is not considered a ‘normal’ part of ageing, it can be one of the side effects of medication, as well as of wearing dentures or of poor oral health.

Older people also experience slower gastric emptying, meaning that food stays in the stomach longer and therefore reduces appetite, and conditions such as constipation are much more common among elderly people, and can cause the same issue.

When it comes to enjoying food, taste, smell and vision all play their part in stimulating our appetite, but these senses can all become impaired as we get older, making eating much less appealing.

Environmental And Social Changes That Can Affect An Older Person’s Appetite 

Our mood and the environment we’re in can strongly affect our appetite – for example, you’re much more likely to eat more on a fun night with friends than sitting at home by yourself feeling a bit low – and this is true of all age groups, but especially the elderly. Depression is more common in older people and can greatly decrease appetite, as can anxiety and loneliness. Eating by yourself is definitely less pleasurable, and older people who live alone – especially those who might be struggling with chores such as shopping and cooking, might be less motivated to eat. Changes in location, such as moving from their own home into a residential facility, or changes in finances after retirement age are also factors that can affect the appetite of elderly people. 

If you are caring for an elderly loved one who has no appetite for whatever reason, it can be a challenging and worrying time, and the very first thing to do if you notice an decrease in appetite in someone you are caring for is to rule out any health conditions such as the side-effects of medications or dental problems that could be causing this loss of appetite. If a GP cannot determine an underlying medical reason for your loved one’s lack of interest in eating, there are some ways that you can try to encourage them.

1. Keep To A Regular Daily Routine

Having a regular schedule for meals and snacks is a good first step in encouraging an elderly person who has lost their appetite to start looking forward to food again. Try to serve meals and snacks at the same time every day rather than relying on your elderly loved one’s ability to feel hungry, as this can decline with age.

2. Combine Smaller Portions With High Nutritional Content

For someone who doesn’t have much of an appetite, nothing is more off-putting than being presented with a huge plate of food, so if you are caring for an elderly person who has lost their appetite, switch to smaller portions -perhaps offering 4 or 5 small meals a day instead of 3 larger ones.

Ensure that these smaller portions are packed with nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, eggs, seeds and healthy fats such as avocado, nut butters and olive oil.

3.Offer Finger Foods

Health conditions such as arthritis, Parkinson’s and dementia can make using utensils difficult, and this frustration could lead to older people not wanting to eat. If your elderly loved one is experiencing difficulty using knives, forks and spoons you could try serving finger foods such as fish or chicken strips and sticks of raw or steamed vegetables like carrots, cucumber and peppers.

4. Provide Snacks Instead Of Full Meals

An older person who has a reduced appetite might prefer to graze throughout the day rather than eat full meals. If this sounds like your loved one, offer healthy, easy-to-eat snacks throughout the day such as cheeses, full-fat yoghurt, fruit, crackers and whole milk.

5. Try Soups And Smoothies

Chewing can be difficult or tiring for some older people, so nutritional soft and liquid foods can be a good option. Healthy soups can be quickly and easily prepared with pureed meats and vegetables, and the nutritional and calorific content enhanced by adding cream or olive oil. Smoothies are an equally simple and healthy option and can be made with either fruits, vegetables, or a combination of both, and full-fat yoghurt for a calorie-boost.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a solution for older people who are experiencing problems with swallowing (dysphagia), a serious condition that can lead to malnutrition and dehydration in sufferers. This condition can affect anyone of any age, but is most common in elderly people and is commonly caused by things such as dental problems, age-related weakening of the mouth and throat muscles, acid reflux, stroke, cancer of the mouth, throat or oesophagus, Alzheimer’s and dementia.  If your loved one is showing signs of dysphagia such as choking on foods, liquids or medication, drooling, coughing while eating or drinking, or having trouble swallowing, please speak to their GP.

Encouraging an older person to eat, once underlying medical conditions have been ruled out, is going to involve some trial and error, so keep a note of the foods that your loved one enjoys, doesn’t like, or has trouble eating or digesting.

It’s also a good idea to keep track of what times of day they are more likely to want to eat. With a little experimentation, patience and creativity, you can help your loved one to enjoy food and stay healthy.

How Care in Kent can help

If you need help looking after your loved one, please get in touch with the team at Care In Kent, Our team is able to assist with homecare services aswell as companion care in Ashford and surrounding areas.