Elizz Content Contributor
Date: May 24, 2016
Appetite and the experience of mealtime change as people age or live with various stages of illness, and for their caregivers too. Here are some things caregivers can do to create a positive environment for eating, while managing elderly eating disorders, whether it’s adapting to a decreased appetite in the elderly, or helping an elderly person with swallowing difficulties.
Creating a positive eating environment
Companionship and eating together are very important but here are some more helpful tips for creating a healthy eating environment for the person in your care:
- Choose cutlery that is easy to hold.
- Provide large napkins for wiping up food.
- Keep the eating area well lit with overhead lighting, so people can see their food properly.
- Turn the television off and minimize distractions (they may enjoy soft music playing).
- Choose a chair that has good back support during mealtimes.
- If the elderly person is eating at a table, ensure it is the right height and allows enough leg room or room for a wheelchair or other adaptive/medical equipment.
Elderly loss of appetite or forgetting to eat
It is not uncommon for elderly persons to experience a loss of appetite or forget to eat altogether:
- As their caregiver, ask the person what makes their appetite better (or worse). Certain foods or drinks? Eating or drinking in a particular location?
- Try and determine what their favourite foods are.
- Make the elderly meal plan colourful and desirable. Talk to them about the food, how good the food looks and tastes.
- Try to have a routine. Talk about the timing of meals in relation to other activities and give reminders before the meal will occur. However, know that you will need to be flexible and that things may change.
- If possible, go for a short walk before a meal. Getting more exercise can increase people’s hunger and make them more likely to eat a meal.
- Choose foods high in nutrition. Even if they are eaten in small amounts, they will help to maintain better health.
- Try phoning and reminding the person of mealtimes. Walk through simple preparation steps, like taking a prepared sandwich out of the fridge.
- Have a calendar with daily menu items or instructions available.
- Check the elderly’s teeth and ensure dentures fit properly.
- Check the elderly’s gums to see if they are sore or sensitive to food that is too hot or too cold.
- Offer foods when they feel most up to eating.
Elderly with swallowing problems or difficulties
An elder person may develop swallowing difficulties (dysphagia) due to a stroke, throat or mouth cancer, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), different neurological conditions, Alzheimer’s disease, developmental disability, or side effects of medication.
- A speech language pathologist should always be consulted to assess swallowing function, appropriate care, exercises, and other feeding and swallowing strategies.
- Provide gentle reminders to swallow.
- Puree certain foods or choose soft foods such as pudding or soup, foods that do not need to be chewed and that can easily be swallowed. There are several recipe books to explore for soft foods for the elderly.
- Thickened liquids help with swallowing and reduce aspiration. Try adding a thickening agent such as corn flour, baby cereal (or baby food), potato flakes, rice flour, or corn starch to liquids while cooking. You may need to leave foods for 5-15 minutes to allow them to thicken to the right consistency.
- Try tucking the chin down when swallowing and/or gently stroke the throat to prompt a swallow.
- Allow for longer meal times, and enjoy the person’s company.
- Sit upright before and after the meal, to make sure food continues to go down smoothly.
- Avoid foods that become thin in the mouth, such as jelly or gelatin foods, popsicles, ice creams, or thin custards.
For more resources on managing elderly eating disorders, see University of Waterloo’s Addressing Mealtime Challenges for Families Experiencing Dementia which includes tips on eating out, self-feeding, swallowing, eating safety, nutrition, and more.
You may also like our Elizz article on Assisting Someone with Daily Living Needs.