Question: My dad’s appetite has changed and it’s hard to get him to eat. Why is this happening and what can we do?
Answer: The aging process brings with it a host of normal physiological, perceptual and other changes that can lead to decreased appetite in the elderly, including:
- A lower metabolic rate and lessened physical activity means seniors need fewer calories.
- Dental problems or gastrointestinal changes (like lactose intolerance) that go along with age can effect the appetite.
- Changes to the sense of smell, taste and even hearing can affect the enjoyment of food.
However, if your father is making poor food choices because of his changing tastes, or if he isn’t getting enough to eat, then that’s cause for concern. It’s critical for seniors to get the right nutrition for their changing dietary needs, because vitamin or nutrient deficiencies can cause significant health problems.
Changes to taste or appetite also occur in conjunction with some serious illnesses, including:
- Head and neck cancers
- Salivary gland dysfunction
- Thyroid disorders
- Mouth and throat infections or periodontal disease
- Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease
Any unexplained changes to your father’s dietary health, including unexpected weight loss, weight gain, or general malaise, should be checked out with a physician.
Here are some things you can try that might stimulate appetite:
1. Increase nutrient density, not portion size. Caregivers should not increase the volume of food they serve to seniors who may have low appetites, rather, increase the nutrient density of the foods they serve. Don’t intimidate him with a huge helping, but add healthy extra calories in the form of olive oil, a little peanut butter or avocado.
2. Set a regular eating schedule. Our bodies tend to thrive off regularity, as do our hunger and thirst signals, so when we stray from our usual patterns, so does our appetite. Start slowly, by adding a small beverage and/or snack during a normal meal time. This can help get the body’s hunger signals get going again.
3. Encourage social meals. For people of any age, just the prospect of eating alone can reduce appetite. For seniors, accessibility and availability of social contact can be even more of a problem. Check out the meal options at senior centers, temples or churches, and community centers, as well as meal “dates” with friends, family or caregivers. Even meal delivery services can help.
4. Be aware of medication side effects. If the problem is dry mouth chewing sugarless gum, brushing often or using an oral rinse prior to meals can improve taste sensation, and ultimately nutrient intake. If the taste of food is “off”—and a common complaint is that some medications make foods taste metallic—then try other sources of protein like beans or dairy. If water doesn’t taste right, try adding herbs, or sliced fruits or veggies like lemon or cucumber.
5. Consider using an appetite stimulant. Some seniors have had success with prescription appetite stimulants. First, though, consult a health care provider to make sure it’s appropriate.