If you’re reading this blog, odds are, your parents are aging and you’ve got questions about how to care for them. Often they have mobility issues to contend with or maybe chronic health problems have surfaced. But what do you do when your elderly parent suddenly loses their appetite and getting them to eat becomes an ongoing battle?
Before we lost my mom two years ago, I didn’t give much thought to the problem of a dwindling appetite in elderly adults. Those of us who find ourselves among the ‘younger set’ don’t expend much brainpower wondering about not eating. We eat when we’re hungry, or perhaps when we’re bored, and tend to overdo it in the food department.
Often, though, when our parents age, their appetites can begin to tank. It may be a gradual process, or it may be a sudden onset. It’s a weird (and frustrating) scenario when eating becomes a chore for a loved one. The last few months of my mom’s life were spent asking, begging, coaxing, bribing her to eat. Anything. It affected my dad who woke up every day trying to convince her to eat more, and ultimately everyone around her could see her weight, and health, begin to decline.
In her defense, she would try to eat, for a bite or two, but for some reason, food just didn’t taste good, or she just wasn’t hungry, or it looked gross to her. It was bizarre. She would eat the bare minimum to get everyone off her back, for a while. Some days were better than others, but eventually, the bad days became more numerous than the good ones.
Since I live far from my parents, I wasn’t seeing them every day. So I was startled when I visited to see my mom dwindling away, her weight decreasing more each time. By the time of her death, she was down to 116 lbs, just bare-bones for her 5’8″ frame.
For some reason, food gradually became an enemy to her. She resented the constant nagging from all of us to eat. We tried many ideas, yet she would literally turn up her nose at most everything we offered. While we would have preferred her to eat nutritious options, our cajoling and pleading became about anything we could get her to plop in her mouth. (And let me just say, when someone gets to this stage of not eating, there’s no such thing as a bad calorie.)
More often than not, loss of appetite is merely a symptom of a larger issue. The trick is finding it.
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What causes loss of appetite in the elderly?
From a logical perspective, senior citizens are just not as active as they once were, which causes a slower resting metabolic rate. So, if a person is not as active as they once were, his caloric intake also decreases, and he just doesn’t need as much food to sustain them. Also, digestion tends to slow down as well. Basically, seniors generally aren’t moving as fast and neither are their bowels. It just happens.
Besides a natural ‘slowing down’ of the aging body, science points to other causes of appetite loss. Certain prescriptions can lead to diminished appetites. Many medicines, including those to help thyroid function and depression, can create side effects of slower appetites. Depression itself can also lead to loss of appetite. Ill-fitting dentures can also be another culprit to not eating. Who wants to eat if it hurts, right?
Depression is rampant among the senior population. Change is just hard the older we get, and losing independence alone can cause clinical depression. When our bodies fail, we may need help and the idea of having to regress and depend on others for daily activities can be hard to navigate.
For an aging senior, loss becomes a very real companion as well. Friends and even spouses die with increasing frequency and cause our parents to change familiar mindsets. Moving out of a family home can also feel too difficult to handle. Even though change may be necessary and best, all these can bring on depression. Read this for more medical reasons for loss of appetite.
Other diseases like heart failure and diabetes can lead to decreased appetite. And similarly, other issues like gastric ulcers or bowel obstruction can inadvertently cause hunger to disappear.
We as children just need to be in the loop with the daily care of our parents.
Keep abreast of your loved one’s eating habits. If your dad has always been a good eater, and now suddenly he’s not, it’s time to figure out what’s going on. Ask questions. Call his doctor and voice a concern. (Now may also be a good time to make sure your parent has given his consent to talk to his doctor on his behalf – per HIPAA).
I think in my mom’s case, her appetite disappeared as her senses declined, namely her sense of smell. She couldn’t smell anything really in her later years. Did you know that your sense of smell is paramount to your hunger?
How do we prevent declining appetites of our parents?
We as children of aging parents need to be engaged when our parents reach that certain age (which is different for everyone). First, we must help our parents be as active as possible for as long as possible. Help them ‘get moving’ and encourage them to exercise with regularity. Sitting all day is toxic. Encourage social behavior, and ease them into new endeavors gently and often.
If your parent lives alone (and away from you), how can you keep track of their eating? How can you keep abreast of their nutrition? I know in my case, my dad and I have had lots of talks about his eating. There’s a lot that his generation just doesn’t know, especially if they’re men. It’s not their fault, they just haven’t had the practice to know things around the kitchen as the women do. So we talk. And I go to the store with him to see what he’s buying.
But, even if your parent does know their way around the kitchen, often the mobility required to prepare simple meals is too difficult, so they don’t try or won’t learn to cook.
Quick and easy frozen options may be a senior’s only option if mobility or culinary knowledge is an issue. Frankly, frozen meals have come a long way in recent years. Perhaps a couple of educational trips to the market can help with food choices for your loved one. If you’re worried that your mom is not eating, calories and protein are most important. But again, no food is a bad food when you’re trying to get someone to eat.
Here’s the bottom line: If you’re concerned about your parent’s lack of appetite, any calorie is a good calorie. Let them eat whatever they might eat, whatever sounds good. A colorful, interesting plate will go a long way, as will a social, active meal-time atmosphere.
While the results are mixed, sometimes a doctor can prescribe an appetite stimulant to help. Nutritional supplements like Ensure or Boost can help to provide quick calories and replace lacking protein.
Loss of appetite in the elderly is not a natural part of aging
Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is a great article that explains that loss of appetite and the resulting loss of weight are NOT a normal part of aging. The author lays out the exact scenario that my family experienced with my mom. Once we couldn’t get her to eat enough, her declining muscle mass just couldn’t support her. This led to another fall, head injury, and the complications from all of those that she couldn’t recover from. It’s like a rolling boulder down a hill that we couldn’t stop.
When our parent’s age, we must be more involved in their daily living. We need to help make their homes safer and engage them socially. Sometimes they will resist and balk. You’re asking, “What do I do if they live far away from me, and I can’t be involved on a daily basis? Check out this post to help you in caring for your parents if you live far away.
Stay aware of eating habits with your loved one. If you’re concerned about your elderly parent’s loss of appetite, talk to them and/or their doctor. Perhaps together you can pinpoint when their appetite changed. Usually, it is a symptom of another issue, like a side effect of a prescription, or another underlying medical condition. But if caught early, the reason can often be corrected, preventing the downward spiral of their health.
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