Healthy aging and nutrition for older adults

Older adults have different nutritional needs than younger adults. Recognizing warning signs for nutrition problems can help older adults regain their health.

Poor nutrition in older adults and frail elderly can have devastating effects. Poor nutrition is associated with increased risk for chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It is a major contributor to infection, disability, longer hospital stays and hospital readmissions. According to the United States Administration on Aging, 75 percent of health care costs can be attributed to chronic diseases. Regaining and maintaining health is of vital importance to people of all ages.

If you are a caregiver for an older adult, there are signs to watch for to determine how well elder adults are eating. According to the Geriatric Education Center of Michigan, some warning signs for possible nutrition problems include disease, eating too much or too little, tooth loss and mouth pain, economic hardship, reduced social contact, taking multiple medicines, involuntary weight loss or gain, needing assistance with self-care and being over age 80.

Michigan State University Extension suggests helping with better eating habits. WebMD author Erin O’Donnell shares several important ways caregivers and family can help older adults regain and maintain better health through healthy eating.

  • Talk to your loved one and, if possible, watch them in their home to figure out why they’re not eating better.
  • Brainstorm solutions together. For example, if arthritis stops them from opening cans or chopping veggies, help by transferring pre-cut foods into easy-to-open containers.
  • If you see that they forget to eat, an alarm clock or phone call may remind them.
  • Some prescription medications can lower appetite. Ask the prescribing doctor about switching medications.
  • Ill-fitting dentures or other dental woes can make chewing hard. Head to the dentist for some help.
  • Have ready to eat protein options available like peanut butter, tuna, cheese, Greek yogurt and hard boiled eggs. Protein helps maintain muscle mass strength longer.
  • Make fruits and vegetables easier to eat. Prepare smoothies with fruit and add protein powder. Steam vegetables to make them softer to chew.
  • Include whole grains which may protect the heart, and also relieve constipation. Whole-grain crackers, cereals, breads, as well as microwaveable brown rice, or oatmeal that is prepared ahead of time and stored in the fridge for reheating all make quick, healthy options.
  • Honor your loved one’s food choices. Avoid arguing about food; instead talk about healthy eating in a positive, supportive way.
  • WebMD author Erin O’Donnell suggests that nutrition supplement drinks may be a good way to obtain calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. But she says to think of them as supplements and not meal replacements. Don't offer them with meals. Limit the drinks to snack time. You don’t want them to fill up on drinks. You want them to eat as much real food as possible first. To make the drinks tastier, try serving them cold.
  • Go for a walk or move around the house with your loved one. Moving stimulates appetite and increases well-being.

With focus and attention, we can help our older adults regain and maintain a higher level of health by improving eating habits.

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