From the time a person is born, her or his life is a series of changes and choices: moving from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, making friends, choosing to marry (or not), raising children, gaining and losing employment, celebrations, and struggles.
Growing old also means making adjustments to new realities. Aging is linked to many physical changes that include muscle loss, inflammation, pain, chronic conditions, and perhaps cognitive difficulties or emotional challenges.
For many seniors, meeting these challenges requires a commitment to learning how to maintain or improve their health. Focusing on good nutrition is a great place to start.
Malnutrition in the Senior Adult Population
According to the Mayo Clinic, malnourishment is a “serious senior health issue,” and can lead to the following:
- A weak immune system, which increases the risk of infections
- Poor wound healing
- Muscle weakness and decreased bone mass, which can lead to fractures and falls
- A higher risk of hospitalization
- An increased risk of death
Michele Norkus, Registered Dietitian and Bethesda Clinical Nutrition Manager, talks about some of the possible causes for senior malnutrition: “It could be that their dentures do not fit well,” she says. “Therefore, they avoid foods they need but cannot chew. Also, because their digestive systems do not function as they used to, they may avoid vegetables that cause bloating and gas.”
Other Eating Challenges and Solutions
According to Michele, older people tend to lose their taste for foods—with one exception. “The taste for sweet things stays with older adults the longest,” she says. “This is particularly common in people with dementia. In fact, to get them to eat it may be necessary to sweeten their food a bit.”
As cognitive ability declines, the senior may experience a decreased appetite, or just forget to eat. Michele has seen this in Bethesda communities, so the consumption of the residents is tracked. “I’ve also witnessed residents who forgot they just ate and return to the dining room for more food,” she says.
Reduced social contact, depression, and the inability to cook for themselves may affect appetite as well, as does the inability to use utensils to feed themselves. The benefits of a senior living community can alleviate all of these factors for an older adult.
Michele and other food service team members have to be aware of a number of factors about Bethesda residents when it comes to their diet. For example, there may be restrictions based on medical conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. “At Bethesda, we run labs to see if our residents are getting the proper nutrients based upon their particular needs” she says.
Nutrition Basics for Seniors
A nutritious diet for a senior is much the same as that for a younger person and should include nutrient-rich foods, a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and lean meats, but there are special considerations:
- While requiring fewer calories to maintain their weight than younger adults, seniors still need to meet the same basic nutritional requirements. This means making nutritionally sound decisions with the calories they consume.
- Residents recovering from a wound need additional protein in their diet to promote healing. A little extra protein for seniors overall to combat muscle mass loss due to aging is advised as well.
- Because osteoporosis is a concern for seniors, vitamin D and calcium are important because they work together to maintain bone health. Michele believes that reliance on dairy products may be overblown. “You can get the same nutrients from vegetables like spinach and other leafy greens,” she says.
- Vitamin B12 is important for seniors. “It helps with energy levels,” Michele says. At Bethesda, fortified foods, including cereals, meat, fruit juices, fish, and leafy green vegetables provide B12 requirements. “Every bite of a fortified meal is going to give seniors more calories, which is important for people who aren’t eating much,” Michele says.
How to Read a Food Nutrition Label
If you are a senior or a family caregiver for a senior loved one (or anyone else, for that matter), it pays to be able to understand what is in the foods you are eating. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration provides instruction on how to read food nutrition labels.
As you age and adapt, so should your diet. To keep on top of your nutritional needs and care needs, contact Bethesda Care Management today about creating a care plan catered to your lifestyle.