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Posted: December 12, 2005

Practical Caregiving

Food, Food, Food -- and (Maybe) Nutrition

I think we have all experienced this scenario: A group of elderly are sitting around a table in a restaurant. They seem to be talking and laughing. As you quietly walk to the table, you hear the conversation. You stand there for a few minutes, listening. They aren't talking about their grandkids. They aren't talking about the hurricane. They aren't talking about politics or religion.
They are talking about eating!
They are talking about going to this restaurant or that cafe, and how good or bad the food and service was. One of the women spilled her drink a month before, and the waitress got upset. One of the men was waiting for a table a couple months earlier and a woman tried to pick him up, right in front of his wife (or so he says)!.
They ate Chinese food at one place, Mexican at another place and American at a third place. It seemed that their interests all revolved around food and eating.
Whether your loved one is still independent or relies completely on you, they need good nutrition. That's part of your job as a family caregiver. That's also where the challenge develops. You may need the help of a doctor and a thorough physical examination to make sure they are getting everything they need.
The fact that our loved ones eat enough food does not mean they are getting the nutrition they need. This problem is fairly common. But before we go into that, let's look at malnourishment.
Malnutrition develops over a period of time when our loved one's body does not get the nutrients they need. They may eat enough food, but their body does not absorb it as well as it used to. Or, they may not eat enough food. There are many reasons why a person may not eat enough food. There may be a disease that decreases their appetite, or even their medicines may cause that problem.
Their sense of taste and smell may decrease, causing food to not be as appetizing. Their dentures may not fit correctly, making their gums sore and hurt when they chew. They may have cavities or other problems with their teeth. They may be short of money and have to decide whether to pay the heating bill, rent, prescriptions -- or buy food. Perhaps they lose track of time and don't realize they are missing meals.
Another problem in our culture is the psychological impact of the magazine and television ads showing the very thin person getting everything they want. The idea is that if they don't watch what they eat, they will get fat and lose friends.
As a person ages, their body doesn't absorb food the way it did when they were younger. Your loved one may need to take extra vitamins and/or supplements. It is extremely important for your loved one to get the nourishment they need. Many elderly don't, and they become undernourished and lose weight. It is called anorexia of aging, or anorexia of the elderly.
There are many effects of malnutrition. Some are easy to see, and some are not. Don't blame anything on the fact that your loved one is aging. Medical science has progressed far enough that a cause of most problems can be found and hopefully treated.
If a person is malnourished, the degree of problems will depend on the severity of the lack of nourishment. However, they will show signs of being irritable, nervous, tired and have trouble concentrating. The psychological impact will produce less self-confidence, self esteem and contribute to depression. Then, there are the physical problems that develop. They will not be as physically active, their bones and muscles will become weaker, they will fall more and other health problems will develop.
When a malnourished person becomes sick or falls and breaks a hip, their recovery is much longer. Sometimes they don't recover.
So what can you do to ensure your loved one gets the nutrition they need? There are some standard answers, but you will also need to use your creativity. Each person is different and what works for one person may not work for another person.
  • First, get a thorough physical examination and have them check to make sure your loved one is getting the vitamins, minerals and other nutrition they need. If they are not, talk to the doctor about how to fix that problem.
  • Try to have them eat in a social environment with friends and family members.
  • Make sure their food is appetizing to them and easy for them to eat.
  • Learn what types of food they should eat and how much.
  • Learn about vitamins and supplements, how much your loved one should have, and how to make sure you don't give them too much.
  • Give them the vitamins and supplements they need.
  • Help them eat, if you need to.
  • Think about everything you have learned, what they have always liked and disliked, and come up with a plan to give them what they need and like.
It is extremely important that your loved one's get the nourishment they need. And it is extremely important for you, their caregiver, to get the nourishment you need. Why don't you apply what you learn to your diet, also?

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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