I’m not sure when my mother’s dietary habits changed. I lived far away and came home every few months. As the years passed, her refrigerator’s contents went through a metamorphosis. Once filled with fresh fruit and veggies, meat, and condiments when I was younger, in her last decade, it mostly held onion dip, pimento cheese, yogurt, orange juice, and expired bottles of ketchup and mustard. The freezer contained Stouffer’s single-serve meals and several pints of ice cream (mostly for when my brother came over). The pantry had pre-packaged tuna salad, starchy veggies in cans, and bottles of Ensure.
My mother’s dietary routine in her last months looked like this: For breakfast, she ate a single serving of peach pie with a small glass of OJ, a hot cup of coffee, a spoonful of peanut butter, and a glass of water with which to take her morning pills. Her lunch was usually a cup of soup with a few crackers, and dinner was a bottle of Ensure. She also had many packages of snacks and cookies on her countertop next to the frig. For me, it is hard to even think about eating this type of menu day after day, but I could not argue with her health. She took very few medications and had no chronic diseases, and she lived to the ripe old age of 97.
As we age, changes occur with our taste buds and our caloric needs. Our digestive habits may also shift depending on chronic diseases or maintenance medications. These changes are real, and the successful Family Caregiver must recognize them and make modifications to their loved one’s diet to provide appropriate, adequate nutrition in their later years.
To overcome our failing taste buds as we age, we must find foods with stronger flavors. Use a variety of spices, pungent cheese, or hot sauce to make meals more appealing. Choose fruits and vegetables in different colors to add visual stimulation. Foods must also pack more nutrients in smaller portions to meet decreasing caloric requirements while delivering substantial nutritional value. You will manage these challenging changes through research and education.
Chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes or Crohn’s Disease can necessitate significant changes to dietary habits in one’s later years, as can some medications used to manage various conditions. Allergies like lactose or gluten intolerance could develop as well. Depending on the severity of the situation, or the risk related to medication reactions, significant changes in menus might be necessary. Old habits die hard, so creativity and coaxing might save the day! Again, research and education for you as the Family Caregiver could make the difference between an unsatisfying existence and a thriving lifestyle. Consistency is critical to maintaining the changes you introduce during this time. Excellent time and resource management will allow you to keep healthy foods in the house and on the table at mealtime.
Finally, research shows that having companionship while eating is crucial for a healthy, happy senior. Try to eat at least one meal every day with your loved one. If you use a home care service to provide companion support, or if you have neighbors who come over and spend time, ask these people to share a meal on occasion. A single cup of soup might become a luncheon or dinner party with the right planning, and laughter makes everyone feel better.
Here are some resources to help you better navigate your caregiving landscape with regards to healthy nutrition for your aging loved ones. We hope they give you innovative insights and ideas for how to pump up healthy eating in your household as well as in that of your loved one.
Share your thoughts below on how you find ways to make your loved one’s mealtime exciting and appealing. And thanks for all you do each day as you care for those you love.