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When your elderly loved one refuses to eat

Proper nutrition is vital in order to enjoy good health at all stages of life. As we age our metabolism slows down and we have changing nutritional needs. Sometimes we find ourselves caring for elderly people who refuse food altogether. In order to resolve the issue of food refusal it helps to have an understanding of why someone is refusing food. Having regular snack or meal times is important so your loved one is hungry and ready to eat at those times. They may not feel hungry but offer food regardless, as our ability to recognise hunger decreases with age, so your loved one may not be aware of their appetite.

Our senses can become less astute as we age so food may look, smell and taste less appealing which can significantly impact our desire to eat. It’s important to make food more appetising by choosing different cooking methods or adding herbs, spices and other tasty ingredients, that will intensify the flavour and aroma of the food. Using lots of colourful foods and providing contrasting colours on the plate, will assist those with poor or impaired vision to clearly see the food on the plate, and thus be more willing to eat it.

Medications associated with ageing can have an impact on an individual’s appetite or cause symptoms such as dry mouth, or digestive complaints like tummy upset, diarrhoea, constipation, nausea and vomiting. Talk to your loved one’s doctor to see if medications and/or dosages can be changed or reviewed to minimise potential side effects. Constipation can be assisted by ensuring a person is sufficiently hydrated, eating foods rich in dietary fibre and by keeping physically active as much as is feasible.

Issues around oral health and hygiene can have a significant impact on an individual’s appetite and ability to eat. Dentures that are not fitting well and/or sore teeth and gums will make it difficult to chew food properly and may make eating less appealing. Ensure your elderly loved one has regular dental check-ups to prevent any problems with their oral health. Food is much easier to manage if minced or smaller cuts of meat are offered, healthy appetising sauces are used to soften food and vegetables are served cooked rather than raw. Offer smaller portions as large amounts of food on the plate can be overwhelming. Nutritious soups, fruit/vegetable smoothies, or full fat milk drinks are all good options for a reluctant eater or those who have difficulty chewing and/or swallowing.

Eating alone is not particularly appealing, so it’s important to provide your loved one with opportunities to eat with other people. This may be in their own home with family members or at a community event – look for events facilitated by local community centres, churches or senior centres. Meals on Wheels is a fantastic community service for elderly people who are still living in their own homes, but may be unwilling or unable to cook from themselves.

One of the many benefits for those living in aged care is being able to enjoy companionship and conversation with others at meal times.

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