Whether your aging parent still lives in her home, in an assisted living center, or a nursing home, you need to know the red flags that your older parent might have malnutrition. Many different things can cause your parent to lose weight, eat less nutritious food, or not absorb nutrients from food. What makes it tricky to notice, is that many of the visible signs of malnutrition are also the result of aging.
Common Signs of Malnutrition in an Older Adult
The first step in addressing the situation is knowing the symptoms that can indicate that your aging parent is not eating enough, not eating nutritious food or not absorbing the nutrients from food. Some of the typical indications are that your parent has:
- Lost his appetite
- Lost weight – her clothes are baggy or hang on her
- Suddenly developed a taste for junk food
- No longer eats a balanced diet – for example, primarily eats canned food, instead of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Been falling more than usual
- Is confused or vague
- Has anemia
- Frail bones
- Heals slowly
Reasons That Seniors Become Undernourished
Your parent might feel too tired to fix a proper meal. You might arrange home delivery of hot, nutritious meals through programs like Meals on Wheels, or make home-cooked meals and stock her freezer.
If he is not eating well because he is lonely, arrange occasional meals together and ask friends and relatives to do the same. Seniors sometimes do not have enough money to buy adequate groceries. In this situation, explore getting him on an assistance program for food.
For someone with a family caretaker, consider our recent article, How Your Caregiver Can Get Paid and Treated Fairly.
If she is living in a nursing home, she might be losing weight because of neglect or abuse.
Emotional or mental health issues can lead to insufficient nourishment, such as:
- Anxiety, stress about running out of money, fear about becoming a victim of crime
- Depression, particularly as one friend or relative after another dies
- Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia, causing her to forget to eat
Medications can rob your parent of her appetite, cause nausea or indigestion, or reduce her body’s ability to use nutrients from her food. She might have dental problems that make it difficult for her to chew food. Sometimes people develop sensitivities to some types of food, as they age. Certain diseases affect a person’s ability to swallow, which can make eating problematic.
What to Do When You Suspect Malnutrition
First, have a talk with your parent. You should be kind and gentle. Do not be patronizing or talk down to him. Explain what you have noticed and gently explore what your parent is going through. There might be an explanation that you have not considered.
Second, help your parent to make a food journal. It should include everything your parent eats and drinks, even water. Being dehydrated can affect a person’s appetite. Write in the food journal the quantity and types of food and beverages consumed during meals, snacks and “grazing.” Do not omit the alcohol.
Write down how many cigarettes, if any, your parent smokes. This is because smoking can decrease appetite. Make a note of any unusual reactions your parent experiences, like choking or gagging, sneezing, getting a headache, having nausea or indigestion, or getting extremely tired after eating.
Go with your parent to talk with the doctor about the situation and to develop a plan of action. You should never ignore it if your parent might have malnutrition.
AARP. “Spotting the Signs of Malnutrition in Your Loved One.” (accessed February 18, 2019) https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/health/info-2018/prevent-malnutrition.html