A hearty appetite for a healthy life

Aging: Good nutrition is basic to good health, but many older people simply aren't eating well enough

Life after 50

March 26, 2000|By Julie Sevrens | By Julie Sevrens,Knight Ridder/Tribune

As adults grow older, proper nutrition is often threatened by diminishing appetites and a host of factors, including ill-fitted dentures, depression, confusion and chronic disease.

A coalition of health care experts, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, recently reported that an estimated 40 percent of the nation's 2 million nursing home residents aren't getting the nutrients they need. And it is thought that about half of them were malnourished before they even arrived at the homes.

"Elderly people in all settings -- whether they're living at home or in a nursing home -- are at risk for malnutrition," says Beth Klitch, president of Survey Solutions Inc., a national nursing home consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio.

There are steps one can take, however, to ensure that an elderly loved one is getting enough good food.

Family members can consult with a physician to determine whether any medications or illnesses may be linked to their senior's loss of appetite. Friends and family can take a meal with them when visiting an older person, and should give food as gifts rather than flowers or clothes.

If their loved one has difficulty getting to the store or cooking, family members should inquire about home health services in the area, locating programs such as Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to seniors.

And if an older family member is in a nursing home, relatives can check with staff members to ensure that steps will be taken if malnutrition is an issue.

Although it isn't always easy to tell whether a senior is getting enough nutrients, caregivers can rely on a few visible measures for a gauge. "Some of the signs of poor nutrition can be pretty simple, like clothes that look too big on people, prominence of bones like cheekbones in the face," says Klitch.

Dark circles can also begin to form under the eyes, constipation can be a problem, and sometimes a senior's skin can lose elasticity and become very dry to the touch.

To encourage older adults at risk for malnutrition to eat more, experts recommend caregivers prepare a wide variety of tasty foods and beverages, honoring the senior's varied food preferences.

Seniors with mobility problems should also be given help if they have trouble feeding themselves and should be given time to finish eating.

Taking such steps can have a tremendous effect on a senior's health.

Malnourished older adults get more infections and diseases than those with good diets, and their injuries take longer to heal, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Surgery on malnourished seniors is also considered riskier, and hospital stays for these patients are generally longer and more expensive.

"You need all the basic nutrients to keep your immune system up, to prevent disease, to keep your energy level up, to enjoy life," says Caroline Fee, a lecturer in the department of nutrition and food science at San Jose State University.

Are you at risk?

Use this checklist to find out if you or someone you know is at nutritional risk.

I have an illness or condition that made me change the kind and/or amount of food I eat. If yes -- 2 points.

I eat fewer than two meals per day. 3 points.

I eat few fruits or vegetable or milk products. 2 points.

I have three or more drinks of beer, liquor or wine almost every day. 2 points.

I have tooth or mouth problems that make it hard for me to eat. 2 points.

I don't always have enough money to buy the food I need. 4 points.

I eat alone most of the time. 1 point.

I take three or more different prescribed or over-the-counter drugs a day. 1 point.

Without wanting to, I have lost or gained 10 pounds in the past six months. 2 points.

I am not always physically able to shop, cook and/or feed myself. 2 points.


6 or more: You are at high nutritional risk. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about any problems you may have.

3-5: You are at moderate nutritional risk. See what can be done to improve your eating habits and lifestyle. Recheck your nutritional score in three months.

0-2: Good! Recheck your nutritional score in six months.

Source: Nutrition Screening Initiative

Getting enough to eat

Here are some ways seniors can boost their nutrition levels:

* Ask your doctor for help in planning meals to meet your health needs.

* If cost is a factor, check with your local food bank, Social Security office, area agency on aging, senior center or church for assistance. There are a number of programs that offer no-cost or low-cost nutritious meals to seniors.

* Keep easy-to-fix foods such as fruit, yogurt, cheese, crackers, peanut butter, whole wheat bread, cereal and hearty soups in your kitchen. If you find cooking difficult, you can also purchase frozen dinners or salad bar items from the grocery store.

* If you get full quickly, try eating six small meals a day rather than three large ones.

* If you don't like cooking or don't know how to prepare meals, eat at a senior center or a low-cost restaurant, or order in. Also consider taking a cooking class. You can meet new friends and ask for tips on fixing meals for one or two people.

* If mobility is an issue, share shopping and cooking duties with a friend or neighbor. Or ask your doctor about a home health service to help you with cooking.

* To make sure you squeeze in several meals a day, set an alarm to remind you to eat.

If you're interested

For additional information on nutrition requirements for seniors, check out the Nutrition Screening Initiative Web site-www.aafp.org/nsi/index.html--or write the initiative at 1010 Wisconsin Ave. N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20007.

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