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My Elderly Mother Refuses To Eat – 8 Ways To Help

An elderly woman refusing to eat her dinner.

We have 8 tips that can help you to get your older mother to eat more than she is currently eating.

  1. Try to figure out why she is refusing to eat.
  2. Serve her smaller portions and increase frequency of meals.
  3. Make mealtime a bit more entertaining.
  4. Help her load up on nutritious foods if possible.
  5. Make fresh fruit and vegetables easier and softer to eat
  6. Give her the foods that she likes
  7. Don’t make food into an argument
  8. Get her moving

There are many reasons why she may have a have low appetite.

Refusal to eat by the elderly, and subsequent malnutrition, occurs in both institutional and community settings. Causes include physiologic changes associated with aging, mental disorders such as dementia and depression, and medical, social, and environmental factors.

National Library of Medicine

Know that if you are unable to get your elderly mother to eat with any of these tips, we recommend that you seek help from professional caregivers.

This could be help from hospice nurses or a social worker or physician.

Before you take any steps, you will want to pay close attention to what she is consuming in a day to be sure she is getting enough calories in spite of appearing to eat less.

Then, once you’ve decided that she truly is eating less than she should, the first thing to do is try to uncover the reasons behind this behavior.

8 Ways To Get Older Adults With Little To No Appetite To Eat More

You may be at your wit’s end trying to get your elderly mother to eat more. But it’s important for you and your family members to understand that sometimes seniors just aren’t hungry.

I used to worry about this when I would visit my parents for lunch.

I would wolf down an entire sandwich but they nibbled on just a half sandwich each.

However, when I did some research and found out that an elderly person’s metabolic rate is slower, I felt better about their portion sizes.

Then I realized that they were also less active than in their youth, which meant they didn’t need to consume as many calories.

That said, it is a fact that some seniors just aren’t eating enough. So, if this is the case, here are some tips on how to get someone to eat when they don’t want to.

Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel. Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.

Dr. Eva Shelhub in Harvard Health Publishing

1. Try To Figure Out Why She Is Not Eating

The first step to take is to find out if there is an emotional or physical problem that is contributing to this loss of appetite.

Some of the most common reasons why your mother won’t eat are:

  • Loss of sense of smell and/or taste
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Lack of energy to cook or don’t know how to cook
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Health problems such as gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, cancer, kidney failure, etc.
  • Cognitive issues due to dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s
  • Mobility issues
  • Dental problems (regular dental checkups are a must for older adults)
  • Inability to chew or swallow certain foods
  • Medication side effects
  • Can she see the food? (Mashed potatoes on a white plate may be difficult for her to see)

What To Do In Each Of These Situations

Loss Of Sense Of Taste and/or Smell

  • Consult a doctor: It’s crucial to schedule an appointment with your mother’s doctor to diagnose the underlying cause of the smell and taste loss and loss of appetite. This could be due to a temporary illness like a cold or sinus infection, or something more complex requiring further investigation.
  • Enhance Food Flavors and Textures: Since the sense of smell and taste are diminished, enhancing the flavor of food can help. Use a variety of herbs, spices, and seasonings to make meals more appealing. Experimenting with textures can also make food more interesting to eat.
  • Focus on strong textures and visual appeal: Experiment with colorful, well-presented dishes and foods with interesting textures that can stimulate other senses. Use herbs and spices: Experiment with different herbs and spices to add flavor without relying heavily on salt or sugar. Be mindful of any dietary restrictions.
  • Explore different temperatures: Play with contrasting temperatures like hot and cold to create textural and taste interest.
  • Try new things: Encourage her to try new fruits, vegetables, and flavor combinations she might not have explored before.


  • Mental health professional: A therapist or counselor specializing in geriatric depression can provide individual or family therapy to address her mood and develop coping mechanisms.
  • Socialize mealtimes: Eat meals together whenever possible. Encourage other family members or friends to join, as social interaction can enhance appetite and mood.
  • Encourage activities: Help her find activities she used to enjoy or new ones that spark interest. Exercise, time outdoors, socializing, and hobbies can combat depression and improve appetite.
  • Validate her feelings: Listen to her concerns and acknowledge the challenges she faces. Offer emotional support and let her know you care.
  • Reduce stress: Help her identify and manage stressors contributing to her depression. Relaxation techniques like meditation or deep breathing can be beneficial.


  • Schedule regular visits: Make visiting your mother a consistent part of your routine, even if just for short chats or shared activities. Encourage other family members and friends to do the same.
  • Explore social opportunities: Help her find senior centers, clubs, or activities aligned with her interests. These can offer social interaction, shared experiences, and a sense of belonging.
  • Facilitate technology use: Connect her with friends and family virtually through video calls or social media platforms. Ensure she has the necessary devices and knows how to use them comfortably.
  • Encourage volunteering: Look for volunteer opportunities that match her skills and interests. This can provide social interaction, purpose, and a sense of connection to the community.
  • Support existing relationships: Help her reconnect with old friends or neighbors. Facilitate group outings or activities with peers if possible.

Lack Of Energy To Cook (Or Don’t Know How)

  • Consult a doctor: Rule out any underlying medical conditions contributing to fatigue that might require treatment.
  • Optimize sleep: Encourage healthy sleep hygiene practices like maintaining a regular sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and limiting screen time before bed.
  • Physical activity: If appropriate, encourage gentle exercise within her capabilities, like walking or low-impact routines, to boost energy levels.
  • Simplify recipes: Suggest and prepare simple, one-pot meals with minimal ingredients and preparation time.
  • Utilize kitchen appliances: Leverage appliances like slow cookers, pressure cookers, or microwaves to simplify cooking processes.
  • Pre-chopped ingredients: Consider buying pre-chopped vegetables or frozen meals to reduce cutting and preparation time.
  • Batch cooking: Cook larger portions on weekends and freeze individual servings for quick and easy meals later.
  • Meal delivery services: Explore senior-friendly meal delivery options offering nutritious and prepared meals delivered to her doorstep.

Lack Of Physical Activity

  • Start small: Encourage gentle, manageable activities like walking, gardening, or chair exercises to avoid overwhelm.
  • Find enjoyable activities: Explore options like group fitness classes, dance sessions, or walks with friends to make it more engaging.
  • Focus on progress, not perfection: Celebrate small achievements and gradual increases in activity level.
  • Seek support: Consider joining a walking group or senior fitness program for social interaction and motivation.

Health Problems

  • If you suspect your mother’s loss of appetite is due to a health problem, it’s crucial to schedule an appointment with her doctor immediately.
  • Gastrointestinal Issues: Conditions like constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, or ulcers can cause discomfort and nausea, leading to diminished appetite.
  • Anxiety: Anxiety can manifest as physical symptoms like nausea and lack of appetite. Managing anxiety through therapy, relaxation techniques, or medication can improve her overall well-being and potentially aid appetite.
  • Cancer: Depending on the type and stage of cancer, treatment side effects like nausea, vomiting, and fatigue can affect appetite. The doctor can advise on managing these side effects and suggest nutritional strategies to ensure she gets adequate nutrients.
  • Kidney Failure: In advanced stages, kidney failure can cause loss of appetite. The doctor will develop a treatment plan specific to her situation, which might involve dietary restrictions or adjustments to manage appetite.

Cognitive Problems

  • Simplify communication: Use short, clear sentences and avoid complex instructions.
  • Offer choices: Provide limited options for meals or snacks to avoid overwhelming decision-making.
  • Offer physical assistance: If needed, help your mother sit upright, use utensils, or bring food to her mouth.
  • Create a calm and familiar environment: Minimize distractions and ensure a comfortable setting for meals.
  • Focus on familiar favorites: Offer foods she previously enjoyed and is accustomed to.
  • Enhance sensory appeal: Use bright colors, strong aromas, and different textures to stimulate interest.
  • Smaller, more frequent meals: Serve smaller portions throughout the day instead of large, overwhelming meals.
  • Make mealtimes social: Eat together whenever possible and engage in conversation to encourage participation.
  • Involve her in meal preparation: If able, let her participate in simple tasks like choosing ingredients or setting the table.

Mobility Issues

  • Assistive devices: Utilize canes, walkers, or grab bars to assist her movement around the kitchen and dining area.
  • Adaptive utensils: Consider specialized utensils like long-handled cutlery or weighted cups to make eating easier.
  • Raised chairs or tables: Adjust furniture height to improve ease of sitting and reaching food.
  • Meal delivery services: Explore senior-friendly meal delivery services offering nutritious and prepared meals delivered to her doorstep.
  • Finger foods: Offer easy-to-grab finger foods like fruits, vegetables, sandwiches, or cheese cubes.
  • Appealing presentation: Use colorful plates, utensils, and food arrangements to make meals visually enticing.
  • Comfortable seating: Ensure she sits comfortably, supported by pillows if needed, to facilitate easier eating.

Dental problems

  • Schedule a dental appointment: This is the most important step. A dentist can assess the specific dental problems causing discomfort and recommend appropriate treatment.
  • Manage pain and discomfort: While seeking dental treatment, over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help alleviate pain and encourage eating. Consult your mother’s doctor for appropriate dosage and potential interactions with other medications.
  • Adapt food choices: Offer soft, easy-to-chew foods like soups, mashed potatoes, yogurt, scrambled eggs, or finely chopped vegetables and fruits. Opt for lukewarm or room-temperature foods that might feel less sensitive than hot or cold items.
  • Improve oral hygiene: Brushing, flossing and using mouthwash regularly, even with dentures, helps maintain oral health and reduce discomfort. Assist your mother if needed or explore electric toothbrushes for easier use.

Medication Side Effects

  • Consult her doctor: Schedule an appointment with her doctor to discuss the specific medication(s) causing the issue and the impact on her appetite.
  • Explore alternative medications: The doctor will assess the situation and potentially explore alternative medications with fewer side effects on appetite. This might involve changing dosages, trying different medication classes, or even stopping the medication causing the issue if possible.

Visual Perceptual Problems

  • Schedule an eye exam: Consult an ophthalmologist to assess her vision and discuss any difficulties she might be facing.
  • Presentation: Use bright colors, contrasting plates, and well-lit dining areas to make food visually appealing.
  • Large, clear labels: Label food containers clearly with large fonts and contrasting colors for easy identification.
  • Portion size: Smaller portions might be easier to perceive and manage on the plate.
  • Minimize distractions: Create a calm and quiet dining environment with minimal visual clutter.

2. Serve Smaller Portions And Eat More Meals Throughout The Day

Serving smaller portions and eating more meals throughout the day can be an effective strategy, especially for individuals experiencing a loss of appetite, including seniors who may have lost their sense of smell and taste.

  • Regular Intervals: Try to serve these smaller meals at regular intervals. Consistency can help establish a routine and may gradually improve appetite.
  • Hydration: Ensure that hydration is maintained throughout the day. Sometimes, the body can confuse signals of thirst for hunger, so staying well-hydrated is important.
  • Monitor Intake: Keep track of what and how much is being eaten to ensure nutritional needs are being met. Adjust as necessary based on observed preferences and nutritional requirements.

My mother’s loss of appetite during her last year of life was due to her depression and anxiety over her terminal illness.

We got her to eat a little something every 2 hours and that worked out quite well for her and us!

3. Make Mealtime Entertaining

Some ways that you can help your mother to eat a bit more is to make eating enjoyable.

Here are some tips:

  • Involve Her in Meal Preparation: This can include asking for her meal preferences, involving her in simple cooking tasks, or having her help with setting the table. This involvement can increase her interest in food and make her more likely to eat.
  • Create a Pleasant Dining Atmosphere: Make the dining area as inviting and comfortable as possible. You can play her favorite music softly in the background, use bright and attractive dinnerware, or place flowers on the table to create a more enjoyable dining environment.
  • Eat Together: Shared meals can be a powerful way to encourage eating. The social interaction can make mealtime more enjoyable and less focused on the act of eating itself, which can reduce resistance.
  • Introduce Variety and Color: Prepare meals that are visually appealing, with a variety of colors and textures. The presentation of food can play a significant role in its appeal, making it more enticing to eat.
  • Theme Meals Around Favorite Memories or Places: Create meals themed around your mother’s favorite memories, places, or cuisines. For example, if she loves Italian food, consider a “night in Italy” theme with appropriate music, decor, and dishes.
  • Use Stimulating Flavors: Since taste buds may diminish with age, try adding more robust flavors to meals without making them overly spicy or salty. Fresh herbs, spices, and citrus can enhance the flavor of dishes and make them more appealing.
  • Offer Finger Foods: Sometimes, the formality of using utensils can be daunting. Offering finger foods can make eating feel more casual and fun. Foods like cheese cubes, cut fruits, small sandwiches, and vegetables with dip can be easier and more enjoyable to eat.
  • Introduce Fun Elements: Consider introducing fun elements to meals, such as themed dinner nights, using cookie cutters to shape foods, or even occasionally having a picnic in the living room.

4. Load Up On Nutritious Foods

Focus on foods that are high in calories and nutrients to get the most out of smaller portions:

  • Avocado: Rich in healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Nut Butters: High in protein and healthy fats. They can be spread on fruits, vegetables, or whole-grain bread.
  • Cheese: Offers protein, calcium, and calories. Can be added to dishes or served as a snack.
  • Whole Milk or Cream: Use in place of water or skim milk in recipes for added calories and nutrients.
  • Olive Oil: High in calories and healthy fats. Can be added to salads, vegetables, and other dishes.
  • Eggs: Packed with protein and essential nutrients. They can be prepared in various ways to keep meals interesting.
Protein-Rich Foods

Protein is crucial for maintaining muscle mass and overall health:

  • Lean Meats: Chicken, turkey, and lean cuts of beef or pork are good sources of protein.
  • Fish: Especially fatty fish like salmon, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are not only high in protein but also fiber.
Whole Grains

Whole grains provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber:

  • Quinoa, brown rice, oats, and barley can be good bases for meals or sides.
Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are vital for their vitamins, minerals, and fiber. However, if eating solids is a challenge:

  • Smoothies: Combine fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and a protein source (like protein powder or nut butter) for a nutrient-packed meal.
  • Soups and Stews: These can be easier to consume and can be packed with a variety of vegetables, lean meats, and legumes.
Fortified Foods and Supplements

If getting enough nutrients through food alone is challenging:

  • Meal Replacement Shakes: Look for high-protein, nutrient-dense options.
  • Fortified Cereals: Choose whole-grain cereals that are fortified with vitamins and minerals.
  • Supplements: Consult with a healthcare provider about the possibility of adding supplements or multivitamins to her diet.

5. Make Food Softer And Easier To Chew And Swallow

Here are several strategies and tips to prepare softer, more palatable meals.

  • Blend or Puree Foods: Use a blender or food processor to puree fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains into a smooth consistency. Pureed foods can be flavored with herbs, spices, or sauces to enhance their taste.
  • Cook Foods Until Soft: Slow cook, stew, or steam foods until they are very soft. Vegetables and meats cooked until tender can be much easier to chew and swallow.
  • Moisten with Liquids: Add broths, sauces, gravies, milk, or cream to dishes to moisten them. This not only makes food easier to swallow but can also add extra flavor and nutrition.
  • Use Thickeners if Necessary: For those with dysphagia, sometimes liquids need to be thickened to make swallowing safer.
  • Modify the Texture: Foods can be mashed, minced, or ground to make them easier to chew and swallow. Mashed potatoes, minced chicken or fish, and ground meats are good options.
  • Presentation Matters: Even when food is pureed or softened, presentation can still make a big difference. Use garnishes, colorful foods, and attractive dishware to make meals visually appealing.

6. Give Your Mother Foods That She Likes

My mother was very watchful of her nutrition for most of her life. But in her last year of life she craved sweets.

Because she had a terminal illness, we didn’t deny her any of her requests and although she might have only eaten one small boiled potato for dinner, she devoured 10 cookies afterwards!

They were not the healthiest calories, but at least she was eating and more importantly, she was happy and satisfied.

I’m not saying that your mother should only eat cake or cookies – but if she loves a certain food, speak to her doctor about it and compromise with your mother.

7. Never Make Meals Or Food An Argument

Getting into a fight with your mother about her eating problems only exacerbates the issue and doesn’t solve anything.

So, I recommend that you take a deep breath and try some of these techniques instead.

  • Open Communication: Have a calm, open conversation about why they’re not eating. Express your concerns without blame and listen to their perspective.
  • Medical Evaluation: Encourage a medical evaluation to rule out or address any underlying health issues affecting their appetite.
  • Adapt Meal Preparation: Adjust the type of food, portion sizes, and meal times to their preferences and needs.
  • Create a Pleasant Mealtime Environment: Make mealtime enjoyable and stress-free. Eating together in a relaxed setting can encourage a more positive association with food.
  • Offer Choices: Give them some control over what and when they eat. Offering choices can help them feel respected and autonomous.
  • Seek Professional Advice: Consult with healthcare professionals, such as dietitians or geriatric specialists, for tailored advice and strategies.
  • Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods: When they do eat, ensure the food is nutrient-dense to maximize their intake of essential nutrients.
  • Be Patient and Supportive: Recognize that changes in eating habits may take time. Offer your support and understanding throughout the process.

8. Encourage and/or Help Her To Exercise

Encouraging your mother to exercise, even in small amounts, can have a positive impact on her appetite and overall well-being.

Here are some ways that you can help.

  • Consult with Healthcare Providers: Before starting any new exercise regimen, it’s important to consult with healthcare providers to ensure the activities are safe and appropriate for the elderly individual’s health status.
  • Start Slow: Begin with low-impact, gentle activities, especially if the individual has been inactive or has mobility issues.
  • Walking: Short walks, either outdoors or indoors, are a great way to start. Walking can be easily adjusted to fit the individual’s ability and can be a pleasant, social activity.
  • Chair Exercises: For those with limited mobility, chair exercises can provide a safe way to move. These can include seated marches, leg lifts, and arm circles.
  • Stretching: Gentle stretching can improve flexibility and circulation. It can be done at any time of day and adjusted to the individual’s comfort level.
  • Water Aerobics: If accessible, water aerobics or swimming are excellent for seniors. The water provides natural resistance while being gentle on the joints.
  • Tai Chi or Yoga: These gentle forms of exercise focus on slow movements, balance, and flexibility. Many community centers offer classes specifically designed for seniors.
  • Gardening: For those who enjoy the outdoors, gardening can be a rewarding way to stay active. It involves a range of motions and can be very satisfying.
  • Household Tasks: Encourage participation in light household tasks like dusting, folding laundry, or cooking. These activities can provide a sense of accomplishment and contribute to daily movement.

The issue of not eating can be a very difficult and frustrating situation but hopefully, these tips that we’ve provided will help you and your mother!

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