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How Do I Take Care of My Elderly Parents' Nutritional Needs?

Of all those who we encounter in life, none are more influential than our parents. They provided everything for us when we were younger and as our parents age, we must do the same for them.  Providing clothing and shelter are usually simple enough, after all we have known them our whole life. They have told us where they wanted to live when they get older, and how they like to dress. The challenge comes in what they eat. What to feed our elderly parents has got to be one of the most important decisions that we make for them.

When choosing a meal for an elderly person we must ask ourselves a few basic questions.
1) Do they suffer from loss of appetite?
2) Do they have mechanical issues that prevent them from eating normally?
3) Do they have health issues that effect nutrient needs?

Knowing the answers to these simple questions can go a long way in making proper diet choices for your elderly parent. Lets look closely at each point and how it relates to your loved one.

1)    Do they suffer lost of appetite?
Many times elderly people do not eat as much as when they were younger. They may choose to eat a full meal only once a day. They may choose to eat several small meals or snacks a day.  Either of these choices are okay. Remember for an elderly person, food is about quality over quantity. Forcing the elderly person to eat more will only cause them to shut down and often stop eating completely.

Start with offering them what they enjoy eating. For example, if they like ice cream then offer them a small bowl of ice cream along with a healthy food choice like steamed broccoli.  Ask them if they will eat a few bites of this before the ice cream. 

Elderly people like consistency and routine. So consider offering them their meals and snacks at the same time each day. This will help them develop a habit of eating and set their hunger patterns.  Their body will begin to naturally feel hungry at meal times. Be mindful that many habits preferences that they have had in younger years do not go away , simply because they are older.  If they did not eat raw carrots when they were younger, they most likely not eat them when they are older. If they only ate cooked carrots then give them cooked carrots now. 

When dealing with loss of appetite, never take away the food preference completely. Do not stop offering ice cream all together until they eat something else. This will only slow up the process of developing good eating habits. If they refuse to eat anything at all then contact your health care provider. This may be a sign of a more serious condition.

2) Do they have mechanical issues that prevent them from eating properly?
Mechanical issues are external factors that effect eating. Some examples of these are dentures and difficulty swallowing. In these cases the elderly person may have a normal appetite but cannot eat normally because of those issues. Offer them foods that are easy to chew. Vegetables should always be cooked until they are as soft as possible without losing flavor.

There also many meal replacement shakes and supplements available to help provide adequate nutrition. Some examples are Ensure, V8, and Glucerna.  Another option is to blend together fruit juices and vegetables for a natural homemade treat.

Soups are also an excellent choice for those with mechanical issues. They come in clear or full liquid varieties. Broths are examples of clear. Things like tomato soup are examples of full liquid. These provide a feeling of fullness without being hard to ingest.

3] Do they have health issues that effect nutrient needs?
Many times there are health problems that affect how the elderly person eats. An example of this is diabetes. The diabetic requires small meals frequently. They must limit fruit and juice intake as these are sometimes high in sugar. It is good to plan their meals in advance to maintain carbohydrate consistency. For example, they may have a little ice cream if it is accompanied by a protein. This can help lower the glycemic load.  Try mixing protein powder into sugary drinks. Protein helps the sugar to absorb more slowly than it would if it were eaten alone.

There are several other health issues that affect nutrient needs.  Each case is different. Make a list of your elderly loved ones' food preferences.  Use this list to work with a Registered Dietitian or other health professional to develop at set meal plan that is suitable for your lifestyle and loved ones needs.

Remember to be patient with your loved one. Take each meal one day at a time. What works one day may need a little adjusting the next. Make meal time an enjoyable experience. No one wants to eat alone so consider eating with your loved one, or keeping them company while they eat. This can make a world of difference in how they view meal time.  Find out what the RDA's (Recommended Dietary Allowances) are for each nutrient, and read food labels.  Plan meals a head of time. It may cost you few extra minutes now but it will save you years later.

Sametra Gardner has been writing professionally since 2010, with her work appearing on various health and nutrition related websites. She specializes in writing about nutrition and health-related content. Sametra holds a Bachelor of Science in food and nutrition from Alcorn State University. Her passion for the food and nutrition industry began as a young adult. While attending college she witnessed first hand the impact that food service and nutrition can have on others. She was inspired to learn more and became a health/nutrition writer. Gardner desires to increase food and nutrition awareness of others in her community by spreading the knowledge, and wisdom that she has gained through years of education and hands on experience.

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