Menu Close

My Elderly Mother Refuses To Eat – 7 Ways To Help

Share This Article

Updated March 22, 2021 – Most any family member would be upset to see their elderly mother eating less and less or barely at all. It’s difficult to understand and can be frightening to acknowledge that she may have some serious illnesses or is just going through the aging process.

One tough situation might be when your elderly mother is losing weight without much effort, has a loss of appetite and doesn’t want to eat. In order to help her to be on a healthy diet and get the proper nutrition that she needs, you might have to jump in to improve her condition.

After all, a good quality of life includes feeling good and enjoying the food you eat.

What do you do when your elderly mother is refusing to eat? (Or any other senior loved one)

  • Try to figure out why she is refusing to eat.
  • Make mealtime a bit more entertaining.
  • Help her load up on nutritious foods if possible.
  • Make fresh fruit and vegetables easier and softer to eat
  • Give her the foods that she likes
  • Don’t make food into an argument
  • Get her moving

There are many reasons why elderly people might have low appetite. In this article, we’ll go into these causes and give you some practical tips on different ways that you can help them to eat more.

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 (or loved one) to eat with any of these tips, that you may need to get some help from professional caregivers. This could be help from hospice nurses or a social worker, etc.

7 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 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. 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 just aren’t eating enough. 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.

Here are some tips and simple ways on how to get someone to eat when they don’t want to.

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 aging parent 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 dental problems, gastrointestinal issues, loss of sense of taste or smell, depression, anxiety, cancer, kidney failure, etc.
  • Cognitive issues (dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s)
  • Mobility issues
  • Dental problems (regular dental checkups are a must for older adults)
  • Medication side effects
  • Can she see the food? (Mashed potatoes on a white plate may be difficult to see for her)

If you suspect that your elderly relative may not be eating as much are due to medical reasons or chronic conditions then I urge you to contact their physician right away.

I remember a friend’s mother who had MANY gastrointestinal problems. Some were due to intolerance of dairy products, most others though were due to anxiety that manifested in physical pain.

Issues like these can severely impact someone’s appetite and willingness to eat.

The good news is that your physician can help to eliminate any physical medical issues that may be causing this poor appetite.

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. Their depression could be fueled by poor nutrition.

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

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.

Another good idea is to use the meal delivery companies, such as Purple Carrot. They choose a nutritious meal, the ingredients get delivered, and all your parent has to do it cut up the veggies and cook the food according to the included recipes.

But if they prefer a meal all ready to go then check out the variety of chef prepared meals at Freshley or Silver Cuisine – all your parents have to do is heat it up.

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 memory problems 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, turn the television off and play some soft music. Limit the activities of other people who may be in the room around the time the senior is eating.

Elderly adults with mobility issues may find it too difficult to prepare a meal so again, home delivery services such as the ones I mentioned above may be a good option for them.

2. Make Mealtime A Bit More Entertaining

If instead, your senior mother enjoys more of a “entertaining” atmosphere while eating then why not help her to achieve that?

This could include things like…

  • Colorful plates
  • Tablescaping
  • A funny movie or TV show
  • Some lively music
  • Having dinner with her while you both are on Zoom or use Alexa’s Drop In Skill

Enjoying food is a multi-sensual experience and presentation, colors and stimulation may be what she needs to not only initiate eating but to continue eating.

3. Help Her To Load Up On Protein And Whole Grains

Try to make sure that what they are eating (when they do eat) is some type of healthy food that will give them as many calories as possible and enough nutrition to keep them hydrated and functioning.

A balanced diet is important for anyone, at any age but especially for older adults.

Lean meats and proteins, whole grains, and supplemental drinks like Boost or Ensure, or other protein powder drinks can add much needed calories to your parent’s diet and help to supplement or provide at least some healthy meals for them.

Whole grains also are good for the heart and can help with constipation.

Take a look at this table for some food ideas:

ProteinsWhole GrainsSupplemental Drinks
  • Avocado
  • Peanut butter
  • Chopped meat
  • Cheese
  • Egg
  • Beans
  • Greek yogurt
  • Tuna
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Whole grain bread
  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal
  • 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 and healthy snacks, 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 to small amounts of food 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.

One of the best ways to encourage a senior to eat is to serve many small, nutrient-dense snacks throughout the day instead of the traditional three large meals.

AgingCare.com

For many seniors, more frequent smaller meals throughout the day are much easier to tolerate, especially if they suffer from GI issues.

4. Offer Softer Foods That Are Easier To Eat And Swallow

Changes in oral health can make eating trickier for your elderly parent and is a very common issue as people age.

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

  • Chicken nuggets and other finger foods
  • 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.

5. Give Your Older Mother The Foods She Likes

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!

6. 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 to 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.

Also, don’t force a large meal onto an older adult – they may not be able to digest it properly and that in turn may keep them from eating as they should.

Smaller meals more frequently throughout the day is a better option for many seniors.

7. Get Your Older Mother 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.

If any of these 6 recommendations are not working for you and your senior loved one you may want to try consulting with a registered dietitian to help you brainstorm some other ways to help your senior loved one to eat more.

How To Remind Elderly Adults To Eat

Once you figure out exactly why your elderly parent isn’t eating and have put together a pantry and fridge of 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.

If you need to step away – get some respite care – no one person can be a full time family caregiver without help.

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 or a little olive oil on their lip if they are dry

Hopefully, if your senior loved one is under Hospice care and you are getting help and instructions from the nurses during this time.

Join our email list for SeniorSafetyAdvice