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The Importance of Nutrition for the Elderly


Something great has happened in the way we think about our lives. How we view aging, the role age plays in life, and specifically how we consider the latter years of life have undergone some dramatic shifts over the years. No longer something we avoid discussing or thinking about, our elder years now figure prominently in our overall view of a well-lived life. We don't discount this time and we seem to have developed a real understanding of the value that this time of life holds, not only for us as individuals, but for our larger society.

We call them "the golden years". We look forward to it, save for it, work toward it. Not only do we all expect to live longer, we expect to live better. And there is no reason why we can't. Today, many people are choosing to work well into their 70s and even their 80s, are active, participating in larger society, and in the lives of their children and their children's children and in the younger generations, in meaningful and important ways. Even in business, the value of the wisdom and knowledge that comes with a full life of experience is figuring more prominently, with books, lectures, and mentoring programs provided by retired professionals more popular than ever. There is even the popular idea now that, rather than the time we stop doing meaningful activity, our elder years have become the time of "the bucket list" where we finally make a point of fulfilling life-long dreams we could never find time for when younger.

The important piece we need to address:

This is a welcome and wise enlightenment regarding our elder years, and regarding the value of this portion of our population in our world. Which makes it all the more perplexing that perhaps the most significant but easily addressed problem seems hardly ever to be part of the discussion. Nutrition is important in any time of life but, arguably second only to childhood, our later years are when nutrition can have the biggest impact, either negative or positive, on every major aspect of life. Yet, though there is a focus on living longer, living better, and there are books, plans, groups, and associations all geared toward optimizing this time of life, how often do we ever discuss this incredibly basic element?

More and more hospital emergency rooms are reporting that nearly half their patients over 70 are malnourished. This does not necessarily mean they are starving or underfed. It means that, in some significant way, their diet is coming up short in meeting the basic needs of their body to ensure health and well being. They may have adequate (or even too many) calories, but they do not have adequate nutrition. In the planning of where we will live, what we will do, what will our community be like, what facilities should we enjoy, how much money is needed, etc, where is the discussion of how we will handle such an important element of a healthy life, and of our enjoyment of life? We need to focus on what is perhaps our best natural tool to create the later life experience we are all seeking.

How nutrition for the elderly is different:

Nutrition for older people is a very different issue than it is for the young. Our bodies can change dramatically with age, our sense of taste and of smell may decline, our ability to plan, participate and manage eating can be limited. In some cases, a more structured lifestyle, such as that of retirement communities or nursing care, can diminish our sense of involvement in this aspect of our lives. At the same time, many older people have health issues that eating can either exacerbate or improve, such as diabetes, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and arthritis to name just a few. So when the need is the greatest for us to be aware, to have a plan in place and to address it, is also a time when, despite even the best efforts and intentions, a lack of understanding of the complexity of the problem may prevent addressing these issues and creating that plan.


What can we do?

How can we begin to understand and address the issues involved, and take action? The first step is simply understanding the role nutrition plays, and that of all the areas we think about in our later years of life, this should be high on the list of concerns we plan for, and not an afterthought. Once we are aware, each individual's involvement is perhaps the best possible defense we have against malnutrition. But involvement also leads to a sense of independence, of control, of self-direction, and of connection to one's own life.

Involvement is key:

For those living in group environments and eating on a meal plan, the more interest we can develop, the more engagement, the more choice we have and the better understanding we develop regarding our food options, the better. Eating in such environments should be a chance to connect with those around us, to take advantage of what is offered to find what works for us. It is a chance to be involved. Discussing the meals, talking about the health challenges we strive to overcome, giving input, and choosing well from what is offered are all actions the elderly can take to enrich the experience of eating, improve health, connect with others, and create an atmosphere where information and the value of food in our lives is promoted. For those who live alone or with family, these discussions, interactions and involvement are just as critical.

The unique challenges faced as we get older:

We also need to understand the general challenges regarding nutrition that older people face, as well as the specific health issues we deal with as older individuals. General challenges can include lifestyle changes that have individuals more distanced from food preparation and planning. We need to counter this by promoting involvement for the elderly and remaining as involved as possible as we get older.

Our sense of taste and our sense of smell can change, so we need to be aware of this and experiment to find foods that can appeal to those whose senses may have diminished. This can range from trying new types of food, to new recipes, to giving feedback to the food service provider or cook - all with the goal of developing as much enjoyment as possible. Enjoyment of food is important at any age, and is such a fundamental part of our daily lives. Without it, issues like depression and malnutrition can result, so this point cannot be over-emphasized.

It would be impossible to detail every health concern the elderly can face here. However, as a few of the examples listed above make clear, there are some serious illnesses and health problems that can become more pronounced or develop as we get older. Obviously medical care is important, but many would be surprised to find what a big difference proper nutrition can make in dealing with many of these illnesses. In addition to helping to create the enjoyment of life so critical to happiness, mental health, and well-being, proper nutrition can help to address so many health concerns the elderly often face.

From diabetes, to high blood pressure, to GERD, the list of illnesses that can be improved through nutrition is extensive. No matter the living situation, older peoples' diets need to incorporate the necessary foods and eating plans as much as possible to address any specific illnesses, and should be coordinated with health care providers and those supplying or coordinating food service. But aside from addressing the illnesses that can encumber the lives of the elderly, balanced nutrition can simply improve one's overall health, increasing energy, improving mood, and helping prevent onset of illness. It is in our later years that we most need to take this seriously, take action, and stay aware when it comes to nutrition and our health.

Knowing the options and accepting change:

We also need to accept changes and be ready to address serious problems in ways that we'd not consider when younger. For some older people, eating can be problematic. It may be difficult to chew, or to digest food. However, there are methods of food preparation, such as pureeing food, and nutritionally complete but easy-to-eat meals. This may require some education if you are cooking for yourself or you are cooking for an older loved one. In group settings, food service providers need to understand the needs, and have the background, knowledge and ability to meet those needs by offering such options. Also, supplements and meal replacements shakes, while not an ideal way to eat on a routine basis, can make a big difference in helping an elderly person whose nutrition needs improvement instantly, while a more comprehensive and long-term plan is put in place. The key here is not to let these kinds of eating problems go unaddressed or be overlooked and to make sure that the appropriate solutions are put in place.

Nutrition as the foundation:

Food can and should be one of our best tools in creating healthy bodies and addressing health concerns in our later years. But it can also be our social connection, our sense of empowerment, and our real pleasure on a daily basis, all of which make our lives fuller, richer and happier. It really is wonderful that we are living longer, getting more out of life, and valuing every stage of the lives we are given. But all the planning in the world won't secure that happy, healthy later life experience if nutrition is on the back burner of our thinking. It should be front and center and of foremost concern. Because nutrition, and all it entails in our bodies and minds, really is a critical part of the foundation of living well that will truly make these our "golden years".

by Louise at Grace


By: Catherine Jenkins
On: 11/20/2014 18:41:01
I want to thank you for this article. It really is an important topic. I think the thing I most agree with is the idea of involvement. Too often when people age it can feel like they are more and more distanced from their own care, and it feels like all decisions are taken away. if people take part, even by just saying what they want, it can go far to make them feel empowered. I know this from my own experience having been an administrator of a residence where most were over the age of 65, but also from seeing both my parents seem to experience this feeling of dis-empowerment. It's so true and the article is right that we don't hear about this topic a lot, though all the other aspects of aging seem to be forever written about and discussed.
By: Anna
On: 11/20/2014 19:21:11
WOW! Great article! So many good points I don't know where to begin. It's so true that even serious illness of our elders really can be turned around through nutrition. It's a proven fact. My mom was one of those light as a bird, small framed women. Osteoporosis would have hit her hard had it not been for medical intervention and a brilliant, complete diet that kept her bones strong throughout her retirement years. I know I am in the same boat, so I intend to make sure I do what is needed when I hit that time of life. I love the hopeful tone and am glad the issue is being dealt with. I will share this article since everyone should think about it - even if you don't have any older people in your life, even if you are not a senior yourself, we all will get there with luck and it should be a good time of life. Thanks GC, for summing up the issues so nicely.
By: Richard
On: 11/20/2014 20:18:55
My grandad lived on sausage, hot dogs, french fries and beer and made it to 95. His brother was a vegetarian and a nutritionist but passed away at 78. Maybe its the exception that proves the rule and anyway, I think my grandad's extra years of run down, sickly, dependent couch potatoism cant compare to his brother's life of fun, travel, health and activity. It's quality too that really matters. Good article, and lots of food for thought, pun intended.
By: Georgia
On: 11/20/2014 23:09:35
I think things are getting better though. I work as the receptionist in a religious residence and most of the residents are older. From talking to them and they also invite me over to have lunch with them in the dining room a lot, I think a lot of them really do pay attention to their health and what they eat. That wasn't always how it was though. I think this is a good story. It would be good to see more topics like this in the news and on the internet. I think it will get better if we pay attention and do things to improve how older people eat.
By: Arnie B.D.
On: 12/11/2014 14:34:06
So many good points. It is sad sometimes when older people are not properly taken care of... I mean these are our moms and dads. And the fact is we will all be there one day - hopefully. Its not enough to just give older people food and there are a lot of problems people dont even think about and that have to be considered. Its important that older people live like they did when they were younger as much as possible and have cotrol and participate. Thanks for telling all this good information
By: M.L.
On: 12/15/2014 00:18:25
It really does bug me how the elderly sometimes get treated like kids and how people around them, like kids they took care of, don't make sure they are taken care of too. I know that's not the point of this story, but the story touches on it and I am glad someone is talking about this important issue.
By: Amanda 56
On: 12/16/2014 22:59:43
My mother was heavy her whole life, but one she hit 70 I saw the weight just creep away year after year. At first that was great, but later became really upsetting. I worried too that someof the loss was related to depression and that's another concern about nutrition for elderly people too.
By: melissa O
On: 12/28/2014 08:21:28
It's so true. I just had a talk with my doctor about my father and nutrition. she was telling me how when older folks come in to the hospital for a bone break they now routinely inquire and investigate diet because often they are fed but not nourished as is needed. thanks for this story that sheds some light on it.
By: Kevin 1942
On: 01/20/2015 22:27:53
It's really important to have a balance I think. When you get old you may think alright, I want to enjoy my life now and what is the point of being really careful about eating at this time, but then again, if you go wild and pay no attention to your diet, then your quality of life can be hurt because you are making yourself sick or less well at least by not eating right. Like always you have to pick your battles and its a trade off you have to decide

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