“Nothing has any taste anymore. Not even ice cream, if you can believe that!” Granny is 92 years old and that is also what she weighs, which is not enough. My granny and I share a love of ice cream, especially Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla! So when she told me yesterday that not even ice cream had any taste, I knew things were serious!
Like many people as they age, my grandmother is losing her sense of taste. For some, the sense of smell also declines decreasing their ability to taste. Granny also has macular degeneration, which is slowly causing her to go blind, so she has a hard time even seeing her food. Living alone, she often feels like cooking is too much effort, especially a few weeks ago when she was temporarily using a walker.
Having given up driving over the last year, she still has not adjusted to having to ask others to take her to the store or go for her. Many of our elders also have dental problems that make eating difficult, dementia which causes them to forget to eat, and depression which can lower the appetite. I have had more than one elderly person tell me they could afford medications or food but not both.
What can a caregiver do when their parents are not eating enough?
Make sure they have food. Actually look in the pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Many elderly parents are too proud to tell their children they do not have enough money for food. Or they do not want to bother you, so if you do not ask them if they need anything from the store, they will just do without.
If they live alone, are they able to cook? There might be assistive devices that they can use to make cooking easier, such as a walker with a seat so they can sit down as needed. If cooking is still too hard for them, it might be time to look into Meals On Wheels in your community. Also, when you cook, make extra and take to them.
Socializing while eating is a large part of the American culture and many of our senior citizens are missing this interaction. They are eating meals in front of the television, the local news keeping them company for their meal. Call your elderly parent and ask them what they had for lunch or supper. It reinforces the need to eat without nagging, serves as a reminder to eat and anticipating you are asking when you call may actually motivate them to eat. So try to have a meal with them as often as you can.
Also, have a medical evaluation. There could be a medical reason your parent is not eating. It could be depression or a digestion problem. There are also medications available that help to stimulate the appetite.
Those are the easy problems to fix. The lack of taste is a bit harder. Here are a few suggestions:
Put less food on the plate. A large amount of food can be overwhelming to someone who already is not really hungry.
Serve only one or two foods. Fewer choices may be less intimidating.
Make the food as attractive as possible. Even when she is eating alone my granny puts out a placemat, cloth napkin and coaster on her dining room table. “There’s no sense in losing your civility,” she quipped when I teased her about it.
Serve small snacks between meals such as cheese and fruit, crackers and peanut butter, or half a sandwich on a small attractive plate.
If using replacement shakes put them in a glass rather than serve them from the bottle or can.
Specifically adapted utensils, plates, mats and cups may make self-feeding easier and promote greater intake.
Add extra herbs and spices to enhance the flavor.
Ask them what foods that can taste. In the same conversation where she complained about not eating, granny mentioned that she hoped my aunt would bring her some desert from the church function she was at and mentioned making a pitcher of sweet tea. Ah, ha! She still tastes sugar. My grandma had more of a taste for salt. Using sweeteners such as Fructevia sprinkled lightly on foods might enhance the tastes. Instead of regular salt, try using small amounts of Sea Salt which tends to have a stronger taste.
Allow plenty of time to eat. Lingering at the table, talking and snacking may increase intake.
What is traditionally the time they eat the biggest meal? For my grandma it was lunch, with granny it is supper. Plan the main meal at their traditional time.
Have afternoon tea and a snack
Let them eat what they want. Seriously. You have to start somewhere. Certainly if they have dietary restrictions you may have to limit some of their choices but you can talk with a dietician to help you. Or ask their doctor about bending the restrictions a little.
Serve their favorite foods
Nutritional shakes such as Boost, Ensure or Glucerna for diabetics can be used as meal replacement or between meal snacks.
Adding Nutrition to Shakes
If your elderly parent needs more calories and nutrition you can supplement commercial shakes by adding an extra scoop or two of protein powder and mixing it in the blender with ice cream and syrup or honey.
Add fruit and frozen yogurt to commercial shakes, along with protein powder.
Add different flavored extracts to enhance the taste.
Peanut butter or other nut butters can be added to shakes.
Powdered milk added to shakes will increase calories and protein without increasing fat.
For added carbohydrates add some Polycose Powder to shakes and foods such as mashed potatoes, cottage cheese, yogurt, oatmeal, cereals and soups. It is tasteless and odorless.
And finally, do not nag. Gentle reminders are okay but avoid making mealtimes into a fight-time.