The scenario proves all too common. A man - sixty-five and living alone, always fretting over the ever-rising costs of living and his ever-stagnant savings - stands in his kitchen, peering at the meager contents shoved inside the cupboards. It’s a series of canned consumables, all cheap to purchase and easy to prepare. They’re also all stuffed with empty calories, delivering none of the nutrition he needs.
He spares no thought for this, however. Instead, he just reaches for a can and continues the routine he’s created - one of quick meals, low prices, and a perpetual thrum of discontent.
An unfortunate trend has recently emerged among seniors: malnutrition. Diets are improperly balanced, with men and women receiving too few of the necessary vitamins, minerals, and proteins needed to sustain their well-being. This has led to a sharp increase in health concerns (as well as early mortalities).
It becomes crucial, therefore, for caregivers and community workers to provide nutritional options for seniors.
The Rise of Senior Malnutrition
Malnutrition has become a (regrettable) part of many senior lives. According to the Journal of Nursing, its reach is considerable, affecting more than half of the total population:
- Up to 10% of those living in community or neighborhood settings.
- Up to 60% of those who are hospitalized.
- Up to 85% of those living in long-term care facilities.
These statistics are worrisome - especially when paired with the knowledge of an impending population boom. By 2030, the National Center for Biotechnology Information predicts that there will be approximately 72 million seniors in the United States alone. This will trigger a rise in malnutrition rates, as well as a greater need for proper meal planning.
The Causes of Senior Malnutrition
Much confusion abounds about the definition of malnutrition, with many individuals equating it with starvation (this is why it's often undiagnosed, with ample access to food leading relatives, community workers, and other caregivers to think the situation acceptable). This is not the case. Instead, it's simply an unhealthy or inadequate diet - one punctuated by foods that offer no value to a senior’s well-being.
The causes for this issue are as plentiful as they are varied. The Journal of Nursing notes that many seniors struggle to maintain healthy eating habits due to: Physical Limitations (including poor dentition, which impacts the ability to chew or swallow; loss of taste acuity, which renders most food unappealing; and loss of mobility, which interferes with the capacity to prepare meals).
- Financial Limitations (including fixed incomes, which don’t accommodate dietary needs; and limited access to food stamp programs and other supplemental sources).
- Psychological Limitations (including early satiety, which creates feelings of fullness, even when little or even no food has been consumed; and dementia, which interferes with the ability to maintain regular eating schedules).
- These factors significantly impact the elderly population and leave many struggling to maintain healthy diets. Overall nutritional intakes plummet dangerously - and this leaves individuals more susceptible to ill health.
The Dangers of Senior Malnutrition
With a decrease in vitamin consumption comes an increase in dangerous symptoms. According to a study conducted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, malnutrition leads to a series of health concerns:
- Impaired Immunity.
- Impaired Respiratory and Muscle Functions.
- Impaired Healing.
- Increased Infections.
- Increased Skin and Muscle Breakdowns.
- Increased Weight Loss.
These symptoms combine for an increased all-mortality rate, with CNN estimating malnutrition-related deaths to total between 2000 and 3000 a year in the United States. These numbers are shocking. They’re not, however, impossible to overcome. Proper meal planning can instead deliver much-needed relief.
Combatting Senior Malnutrition
The effects of malnutrition prove devastating. By establishing healthy eating habits for seniors, however, caregivers can effectively counter this issue - improving quality (and duration) of life. Utilize these simple, but crucial, suggestions for every daily routine:
Identify Nutritional Needs
As the body ages, it experiences a series of changes - including decreased metabolic responses, loss of bone density, and loss of muscle mass. These elements directly impact the nutritional needs of seniors, reflecting a need for smart dietary choices.
These choices, according to a study by Colorado State University, should include:
- Reason: To accommodate the body's lowered absorption rates.
- Foods: Low-fat milk, non-fat yogurt, cheese.
- Reason: To accommodate slow gastrointestinal responses.
- Foods: Whole-grain bread, oatmeal, legumes.
- Reason: To accommodate weakened bone structures.
- Foods: Baked potatoes, beef, chicken.
Increased Vitamins A, B12, and C
- Reason: To accommodate lowered cellular production and tissue repair rates.
- Foods: Spinach, fish, sliced fruit.
- Reason: To accommodate reduced amino acid synthesis and red blood cell formations.
- Foods: Black-eyed peas, asparagus, avocado.
By fusing meal plans with these vitamins and minerals, caregivers can help seniors meet their nutrition goals as each ingredient promotes better health.
To create individual plans, caregivers should first assess the health of each senior. Consult with a physician to determine nutritional gaps (such as low calcium or a lack of iron) and be sure to verify the use of any medications. These may require adjustments to vitamin intakes.
Prepare Meals in Advance
The United States Census reports that 40% of the senior population experiences some form of disability - and the most common ailment is impaired mobility, with 66% of individuals having limited physical ranges. These limitations are the source of much frustration, and they're also the source of malnutrition.
Mobility issues - including difficulty walking, decreased coordination and decreased non-locomotor skills - decidedly impact a senior’s ability to prepare meals. Recipes that call for fine cutting skills or measurements become impossible to complete, and this causes a reliance on fast (but unhealthy) ingredients.
Caregivers must combat this by preparing meals in advance. Create delicious, sustainable options that require only quick transfers from the fridge to the oven or the microwave. Eliminate complicated preparation work for seniors by cooking, freezing, and then storing food. This can provide several days of healthy, low-maintenance options, including:
- Cooked Rice or Pasta.
When creating meals in advance, caregivers should remember the importance of portion control. Provide one-serving meals that heat more efficiently and promote healthy calorie intakes.
Adapt to Taste Acuity
With age comes a loss of taste. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, seniors often experience gustatory dysfunction (or impacted acuity). Lowered saliva production, coupled with altered cellular membranes on the tongue, greatly hinder the ability to enjoy ingredients. Flavors are no longer pronounced.
This proves a common cause of malnutrition, with many seniors refusing to eat the proper foods - simply because these foods taste unappealing.
Caregivers must adapt to this, fusing foods with bold flavors:
- Aromatic Herbs: coriander, tarragon, rosemary, mint, fennel, basil, anise, bergamot, sage, lavender, and hyssop.
- Spices: black peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, dry thyme, cumin, turmeric, yellow mustard, and onion powder.
By utilizing aromatic herbs and spices, caregivers can bring out the full profile of every favor - making food, once again, satisfying.
Remember these words of caution: do not rely on an excess of salt to counter taste acuity. This will only interfere with each senior’s electrolyte balance, increasing blood pressure and raising the chance for a stroke. Compensating with high-sodium intakes is dangerous. Monitor portions carefully.
Choose Healthy Snacks
A lack of appetite - known as satiety - proves common among the elderly. This is an impairment that tricks the body into feeling full, even without food. This leaves many men and women unable to finish regular meals. They’re simply not hungry.
Small-portioned snacks, therefore, become essential: proving easy to consume and delivering the necessary nutrition. Provide seniors with healthy options throughout the day, addressing their dietary needs through:
- Pre-Cut Vegetables (such as carrot sticks or celery sticks).
- Pre-Cut Fruit (such as apple slices or orange wedges).
- Rice Cakes.
- Cheese Wedges.
- Raw Nuts or Nut Butters.
- Sliced Bread With Jam.
- Protein Shakes.
- Pre-Cut Meats (such as slices of beef or chicken).
These snacks offer key vitamins and minerals without demanding large portions. They're ideal supplements for seniors suffering from satiety and promote a balanced diet.
Reach out to Community Programs
Serving as a caregiver is both undeniably rewarding and undoubtedly challenging, with many individuals unable to devote themselves completely to the task. As spouses, parents, and employees, their attentions are often divided - and this creates a need for secondary support.
When trying to create healthy meal plans for seniors, caregivers must rely on community platforms, such as:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): an option that provides seniors with electronic cards, allowing them to afford nutritious foods from local stores.
- Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP): an option provides seniors with a series of coupons, allowing them to purchase healthy foods from farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community agricultural programs.
- Meals On Wheels (MOW): an option that delivers pre-prepared meals to seniors, as well as provides essential companionship.
These programs connect families to the support they need, ensuring that their loved ones have access to nutritious foods. Certain income restrictions, age restrictions, or health restrictions may apply to these programs. Research them with care.
Malnutrition prevails among seniors. Its causes are widespread and its effects are devastating. By creating proactive plans, however, caregivers can improve the well-being of their loved ones.
- Identify all nutritional needs.
- Prepare meals in advance.
- Adapt to the loss of taste.
- Offer snack options.
- Rely on the community for aid.
Through these steps, the path to proper nutrition can be easily conquered.