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Dealing with Loss of Appetite in the Elderly
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Dealing with Loss of Appetite in the Elderly

July 11, 2018

Older adults need enough nourishment to keep them strong and healthy through their golden years and to help them deal with and recover from any medical conditions that they experience. So even though loss of appetite is a normal part of getting older for many people, it can still be very concerning to see a loved one start eating less. But just because it’s “normal” doesn’t mean nothing can be done to better understand and treat loss of appetite in the elderly. Here, you’ll learn common reasons for loss of appetite in seniors and how to stimulate their appetites.

NOTE: Loss of appetite can also be a sign of depression as well as serious illnesses associated with aging, so someone who suddenly loses their appetite should see their doctor for evaluation.
Three elderly men enjoying coffee

 What Causes Loss of Appetite in Elderly Adults?

There are many reasons for loss of appetite in the elderly. Seniors often experience:
  • Slowing metabolism
  • Lower activity levels
  • Dehydration
  • Taste bud changes
  • Dental problems, including poor-fitting dentures
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Side effects from medication, like dry mouth

All these situations can cause the body and mind to want less fuel. In addition, seniors often lose control of aspects of their lives as they age. If what, when, where and with whom they eat is controlled by someone else, that lack of control over an important part of life may cause them to lose their appetites.

How to Increase and Stimulate Appetite in the Elderly

It may seem like appetite just comes and goes mysteriously, but there are things you can do to help a loved one increase their appetite. Try these tricks to stimulate appetite in the elderly:

  • Create a routine. If they don’t already have a set eating schedule, encourage your loved one to start eating at the same time every day. This can train the body and mind to expect and even look forward to an upcoming meal. 
  • Pack in those nutrients. Seniors may find a big plate of food daunting, so instead of trying to get them to eat big portions, make sure that what they ARE eating is packed with good stuff, like vitamins, minerals, protein and complex carbohydrates. Healthy fats like nuts, avocados, olive oil and whole milk dairy products can also raise the calorie count without adding a lot of extra mass to their plates.
  • Eat with others. Depression and loneliness are associated with loss of appetite in seniors. Your loved one may enjoy mealtime more if they see it as an interesting social activity rather than a chore. Offer to eat meals with them on a regular basis and ask others to do the same. You can also encourage them to seek out opportunities to eat with others who live nearby or who are part of the same faith-based community or other civic organization.
  • Fight dry mouth. Dry mouth is a common side effect of medication and, apart from being uncomfortable, it can also affect appetite. Suggest that your loved one use a mouth rinse, brush their teeth or chew sugarless gum before a meal to treat dry mouth and help their appetite return.
  • Embrace finger foods. Shaky hands or loss of coordination, both of which make using utensils difficult, can cause seniors to reject their meals out of frustration or embarrassment. Sandwiches, chicken nuggets, fruit and other items that can be eaten by hand may be more appealing.
  • Encourage healthy snacking. Your parents may have advised you not to risk ruining your appetite by eating between meals. But seniors may prefer snacking to eating full meals, and that’s OK. Help your loved one choose a variety of easy-to-eat, healthy snacks to keep handy. Include high-protein, high-calorie options like meat and cheese roll-ups, full-fat yogurt and peanut butter crackers. 
  • Drink meals instead. Many elderly people have trouble chewing. And others just prefer liquids and softer foods. Smoothies, whole-fat milk and soup work. Bottled nutritional drinks like Ensure are also good options.
  • Make it special. Use table linens in your loved one’s favorite colors. Encourage them to get dressed up. Play some music. Light a fire if it’s cold out. Creating a pleasant atmosphere may make eating more enjoyable.
  • Let them choose. People don’t want to be told to do things, even if that thing is eating! To make a senior feel more empowered, get them involved in what they’re going to eat and how it’s going to be prepared.
  • Suggest appetite stimulants. Some people have had luck with medications that stimulate appetite. These are available by prescription only and may not be compatible with other medication your loved one takes, so if they are interested in this option, encourage them to talk to their doctor.

You and your loved one can try one, some or all of these strategies to see what works. Together with their doctors, you can help them continue to live rich, healthy lives.

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