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What Do You Do When Your Elderly Parent Won’t Eat?

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As our parents get older, it can be difficult to see some of the ailments that affect them. One tough situation might be when your elderly parent is losing weight and doesn’t want to eat. In order to help your loved one, you might have to jump in to improve their condition.

What do you do when your elderly parent won’t eat?

  • Try to figure out why they’re not eating
  • Help them load up on protein and whole grains. Offer supplemental drinks if necessary
  • Make fruits and vegetables easier and softer to eat
  • Give the senior foods they like
  • Don’t make food into an argument
  • Get the senior moving

There are many reasons why a senior might stop eating. In this article, we’ll go into these causes, plus we’ll  give you some ideas to help turn mealtime around if your senior is declining food.

How To Get An Elderly Person To Eat

First, it’s important to understand that sometimes seniors just aren’t hungry. I used to worry about this when I would visit my parents for lunch. Where I would wolf down an entire sandwich, 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 really aren’t eating. Before you take any steps, you will want to pay close attention to what they consume in a day to be sure it isn’t a case of them eating less, but still getting enough calories. Then, once you’ve decided they truly are eating less than they should, the first thing to do is try to uncover the reasons behind their decreased food intake.

1. Try To Figure Out Why They’re Not Eating

It’s not uncommon for seniors to lose their appetite and usually there’s a reason.

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

  • Changing taste buds
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Lack of energy to cook or don’t know how to cook
  • Health conditions (dental problems, gastrointestinal issues)
  • Cognitive issues (dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s)
  • Medication side effects

Talk to your parent about how they’re feeling and what’s going on in their life to determine if they might be depressed or lonely. If you regularly spend time with them or talk to them on the phone frequently, you’ll probably notice if there are some emotional issues going on.

If they are depressed or lonely, there are several steps that can be taken:

  • Try signing them up for some activities like BINGO or senior trips (get their permission to do this first, though!).
  • If your parent is normally pretty active, they may also find a group to join via MeetUp.com, which has various groups in many cities. These groups are geared towards many interest levels and can encompass anything from hiking to technology, knitting to line dancing, and book clubs to meditation – and beyond. I have personally joined a hiking group, a geocaching meetup, and a meditation group in my town, while my daughter has had great success with a newcomer’s MeetUp group when she moved to her new city.
  • Investigate the activities that are going on at their nearest senior center, then suggest they attend or offer to take them there if your schedule and proximity allows.
  • Discuss volunteering possibilities. If they like animals, they may want to help out at a pet shelter. Or maybe they could help out at a food bank or other community organization. If they attend religious services, there may be some opportunities to volunteer within that group.
  • Making meals a social event with friends or family is also helpful. Scheduling a “girl’s lunch” or a gentleman’s breakfast group gives seniors something to look forward to while adding extra calories to their diet (check out MeetUp.com for these types of groups, too).

If you parent lacks the energy to cook or doesn’t know how to cook, find some simpler recipes that don’t require as much work. You could also help prep some meals beforehand so they just have to cook the meals. You can even make extras when you cook, so that your parent can store them in the freezer.

As an example, after my mom passed, my dad lived alone for the first year. He had no idea how to cook because Mom had prepared all their meals for the 68 years of their marriage. I spent every Friday with him, so while I was there we discussed what he wanted to eat the following week, then I would cook it for him. I wrapped up one-meal portions of the food, labeled them and froze them. At dinnertime during the week, all Dad had to do was pull a meal out of the freezer and microwave it.

Health conditions can contribute to a lack of eating. If there seems to be a health issue, check in with your parent’s dentist or doctor to see if you can find a remedy that will help them get their appetite back. They might do well on an appetite stimulant, for example. You can also ask their doctor about any negative effects of the medications they are taking. Some medications can reduce appetite.

An elderly parent who has dementia or Alzheimer’s may not remember to eat or may forget how to eat. They also can have mood swings or be too distracted to eat. In these cases, plan quiet meal times (without the television turned on) and limit the activities of other people who may be in the room around the time the senior is eating.

READ MORE: How To Get An Elderly Person To Drink Water

2. Help Them Load Up On Protein And Whole Grains; Offer Supplemental Drinks If Necessary

If your parent still won’t eat, make sure that what they are eating (when they do eat) will give them as many calories as possible.

Proteins, whole grains, and supplemental drinks like Boost or Ensure, or other protein drinks can add much needed calories to your parent’s diet. Whole grains also are good for the heart and can help with constipation.

Take a look at this table for some food ideas:

Proteins Whole Grains Supplemental Drinks
  • Avocado
  • Peanut butter
  • Chopped meat
  • Cheese
  • Egg
  • Beans
  • Greek yogurt
  • Tuna
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Whole grain bread
  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal
·  Boost

·  Ensure

·  Glucerna

·  Nutrisystem

One important note about using supplemental drinks – these drinks should be used just as they’re described…as a supplement. Your parent still needs to eat regular meals, but these drinks can add extra calories.

Keep in mind, too, that when I say you should load your parent up on foods, I don’t mean to give them larger quantities. Keep the servings small so they’re not as intimidating, but give them a larger variety of foods to try. It’s the calories that count if someone isn’t eating, not the portion size.

3. Make Fruits And Vegetables Softer And Easier To Eat

Changes in oral health can make eating trickier for your elderly parent. They may have teeth or gum problems or could be wearing partials or dentures that aren’t fitting well. The shape of the mouth and jaw can change over time and issues like these can make it more difficult for seniors to eat the things they used to enjoy.

When elderly parents have trouble eating because food is too tough, here are some good options:

  • Provide cooked vegetables instead of raw veggies
  • Try serving fish or ground meat instead of tougher foods like steak or pork
  • Add sauces to meals to make the food softer

Another way you can solve this is by offering food they can eat with their hands. Try foods such as:

  • Chicken strips or nuggets
  • Fish sticks
  • Steamed veggies
  • Meatballs
  • Smoothies are drinkable
  • Scrambled eggs

One huge issue for elderly parents – especially those with arthritis – is that it sometimes becomes too difficult to use silverware.

For these seniors, adaptive utensils (like those in the photo to the right) can make a huge difference in their ability to eat.

Adaptive utensils have non-slip grips that are ultra wide and easier to hold. Look for utensils that are dishwasher safe, like the ones in the image.

If you just want to try adapting the eating utensils you already have, you can try hollow foam tubing that is made for this purpose. It comes in three sizes so you can use it on a variety of handles or objects.

As you can see in the image to the left, you simply insert the handle of a utensil into the foam tubing. One of the pluses for using the tubing is that you can cut it to fit whatever the senior needs to have adapted.

The tubing  is dishwasher safe and is a great option for toothbrush handles, pens and pencils, dental proxabrushes or toothpicks, as well as silverware.

The drawback is that the tubing may not fit over the handles of some thicker or wider utensils.

4. Give The Senior Foods They Like

If your elderly parent wants to eat a certain food six days in a row, let them – provided the food isn’t something they aren’t supposed to eat because it is against their doctor’s orders. To illustrate what I mean, as much as you would like to get them eating, feeding your senior parent a salty soup when they have high blood pressure is counterproductive to their health.

About a year before my father passed away, he visited a dermatologist who joked that, “If I live to be your age [Dad was 97 at the time], I think I will eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Unfortunately, that was the one sentence my dad heard and remembered. “The doctor told me I have to eat ice cream with every meal,” he’d say, with a wink. I would counter with, “As long as you clean your plate first.”

In Dad’s case, he was lucky and had no food restrictions, but we really don’t recommend ice cream with every meal!

5. Don’t Make Food An Argument

Some seniors with cognitive declines can be stubborn when it comes to food. They may refuse to eat or spit out their food (or throw it). This can happen because they are frustrated or are finding it too complicated to eat at that time. In a case like this, remember that it is their condition that is causing them to act this way, so try not to make mealtime into an argument.

You can help them eat more by:

  • Offering soft foods to make it easier for them to eat.
  • Giving them just one food at a time (several choices on a plate may be too confusing).
  • Speaking in a soft, calm voice. You can also try playing soft background music.
  • If they won’t eat, take the food away and try again in 15 – 30 minutes.

6. Get The Senior Moving

The last option is simple; get your parent up and moving. Regular exercise is important because it helps to increase metabolism and stimulate appetite.

If they’re able, take them for a walk around the block before a meal. If the block is too far for them to walk, have them walk around the house. Whatever they do, the movement is important.

How To Remind Elderly To Eat

Once you figure out exactly why your elderly parent isn’t eating and some easier food options, hopefully, things will improve. If not, you still have a few options to help remind them to eat.

Keep these pointers in mind from the list we’ve already discussed:

  • Give them food they like
  • Don’t make food into an argument

Give Them Food They Like

It’s easier to remind your elderly parent to eat when you can offer food they like. Take your parent shopping with you and get their input on what they like and don’t want to eat. Sometimes, seniors are more likely to eat when they can make some decisions on the groceries.

If they’re not up to eating full meals, you can always remind your parent to snack throughout the day. Here are some good snack ideas:

  • String cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Diced fruit
  • Peanut butter and crackers
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Cottage cheese
  • Whole chocolate milk

If your parent is just forgetful when it comes to eating, try a gentle reminder, such as setting an alarm on a watch or putting up post-it notes in places where they will see them.

Again – I repeat to avoid making food an argument

When you’re trying to get your elderly parent to eat, it’s important to remember not to turn the eating process into an argument. It’s a frustrating situation for you, I know, but arguing about it can simply just make it frustrating for your senior loved one as well.

Try to stay patient, use some of the ideas in section #5 above, and take a positive approach to get them to eat.

Elderly Starvation Symptoms

Starvation symptoms or malnutrition in an elderly parent can sometimes be hard to spot. If you suspect an issue, it’s important to watch your loved one during mealtimes so you can see how they eat.

Help monitor your parent’s weight at home if they’ll let you and watch to see if there are any changes in how their clothes fit.

Elderly starvation symptoms include:

  • Weakness
  • Poor wound healing
  • Irritability
  • Feeling cold
  • Tired
  • Lack of appetite for food or drink
  • Dental issues, such as loosening teeth and bleeding gums
  • Weight loss
  • In the later stages, hair becomes dry and can fall out, skin becomes thin and dry

It’s a difficult situation to be in but hopefully, after reading these tips, you can help get your elderly parent eating again. If you cannot, consult their primary care doctor so their situation can be addressed.

What Happens When An Elderly Person Stops Eating And Drinking?

When an elderly person stops eating and drinking, their immune system will start to weaken and they’ll be at an increased risk for infections. If they get any wounds, they will heal slower. Their muscles and bone mass will weaken and decrease, which can lead to more falls and fractures.

Ultimately, if they refuse to eat for a long enough time, they will eventually pass away.

NOTE – One thing to consider about your elderly parent not eating or drinking is if they are under hospice care. At the end of one’s life, it is normal for the body to shut down and no longer need food or water. While distressing for us to watch this in a loved one (believe me, it was very difficult to see my own mother go through this), forcing someone to eat when they are dying can bring on choking or aspiration of food into their lungs.

If your parent is actively in the dying process, instead of pushing them to eat or drink, you can comfort them by:

  • Offering ice chips or brushing a wet sponge across their lips if their mouth is dry
  • Applying a lip balm if their lips are dry

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