Spotting and Stopping Malnutrition in Seniors
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Can you imagine a senior loved one in your life that is hungry or not getting the food they need, but nobody knows it? This has been called hidden hunger. A phrase that describes the problem of malnutrition in seniors.

What is Malnutrition?

Malnutrition can be understood as your body not getting the fuel or nutrients that it needs to work. The two main areas of malnutrition are:

  • Not eating enough food
  • Eating foods that are not providing nutrition

Not all food is created equal. Imagine food is like a package you receive in the mail. You pick up the box and shake it. It feels full and you are excited to see what is inside. But when you open the package all you find is packing paper, Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap. How disappointing! Although the box was full it had nothing of value in it.

A full cupboard, a full plate or even a full stomach doesn’t mean your loved one is getting enough nutrition.

What are the Causes of Malnutrition?

The main causes of malnutrition can be thought of in three different categories. Your loved one could be affected by one or all of these factors:

  1. Difficulty getting food. Your loved one may be struggling with a limited income and unable to afford enough food, or they may be having a hard time buying groceries due to problems leaving the house.
  2. Physical health problems. Aging can cause numerous health problems that make malnutrition worse. These can include:
    • Changes in how foods taste and smell
    • Loss of appetite
    • An illness that makes it difficult to digest food
    • Trouble chewing or swallowing
    • Poor dental health
    • Difficulty preparing food or handling dishes and cutlery
    • Forgetting to buy groceries or to eat due to dementia
    • Medications that change how food is absorbed or tastes
    • Being told to eat a diet low in salt, fat or sugar and not knowing what to eat
    • Drinking too much alcohol and making poor decisions around food
  3. Mental health concerns. A senior loved one that is alone for much of the day may struggle with depression. This depression can be made worse by feelings of grief, loneliness and an inability to connect with loved ones. Depression can cause a loss of appetite and a general lack of interest in food. The loneliness that comes with eating alone also makes it difficult to prepare or enjoy meals.

How to Spot Malnutrition in Seniors

It can be hard to spot malnutrition in your loved one, particularly if they are hiding their eating habits to prevent you from worrying. Malnutrition is common and 25% of seniors are not getting the proper nutrition. Look for these signs:

  • Depression and lack of energy
  • Concerns with memory
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Dry, cracked skin and slow healing bruises or wounds
  • Old, expired food in the fridge
  • Troubles chewing or swallowing
  • Not remembering what or when they last ate
  • Unplanned weight loss
  • Clothes that don’t fit like they used to
  • Muscle weakness
  • Falls

3 Ways to Promote Healthy Nutrition for Aging loved Ones

The first thing you need to do is try and figure out what specific risk factors your loved one may face. Once you know how your loved one is affected by nutrition you can start working on a plan to promote healthy nutrition.

  1. How to help if they are having difficulty getting healthy food. If your loved one is having trouble getting or preparing healthy food you can help with these ideas:
    • Prepare meals for them ahead of time
    • Offer to pick up groceries
    • Plan meals
    • Order them a meal delivery program
    • Make sure they have healthy snacks such as prepared fruits, vegetables and proteins to eat between meals
  2. How to help if they are having trouble eating. If your loved one has physical changes that make it difficult to get proper nutrition you can:
    • Talk to the doctor about nutritional supplements like prepared shakes or drinks
    • Help with getting regular physical activity which can improve appetite and strengthen the body
    • Make note of when your loved one is hungry and have food options available at those times
    • Prepare or order foods that are easy to eat and swallow such as soups, yogurt, smoothies and other soft foods
    • Add flavor to meals with new spices and herbs to encourage an interest in eating
  3. How to help when mental health affects nutrition. If your loved one is struggling with depression or loneliness healthy nutrition may not be at the front of their mind. You can:
    • Talk to your loved one about your concerns
    • Make a plan to connect with your loved one at meals. This could be a phone call or a video chat while eating together.
    • Encourage your loved one to have a visit with their doctor
    • Have foods on hand that are likely to be eaten
    • Meet up, either physically or virtually, and do exercises together

The most important part of healthy nutrition is to connect these two pieces:

  1. Knowing what your loved one needs to eat for good health
  2. Making sure your loved one has access to healthy foods

It can be overwhelming trying to put all the pieces of healthy nutrition together for your loved one. A visit with a registered dietitian can help get you started.

Talk to your loved one, take a careful look at their health and habits and see if you spot any of the easily disguised signs of malnutrition. Then you can start adding in new healthy food options that can keep your loved one healthy longer.


Hidden Hunger: Solutions for America’s Aging Populations

National Institute on Aging: Overcoming Roadblocks to Healthy Eating

National Institute on Aging: Smart Food Choices for Healthy Aging

Senior Health: How to Prevent and Detect Malnutrition

About the Author(s)

Crystal Jo is a Registered Nurse who is passionate about helping older adults live happy, healthy lives at home. As a freelance writer, she enjoys educating and inspiring seniors, and those who love them, to choose a healthy life.

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