Family Living Focus: A healthy appetite at any age

The average person has a difficult time turning down a bowl of their favorite ice cream, unless under the influence of a serious flu bug. Even then, it is usually not a hard sell! A loss of appetite, however, is very common in the senior citizen community. Caregivers must be aware of their loved one’s eating habits to ensure nutritional requirements are being met. Just as we can’t imagine passing up that bowl of sweet dessert, your loved one can’t afford to miss the most basic of meals.

Warning Signs

The causes of malnutrition seem straightforward. They are often caused by a combination of physical, social, and psychological issues. The American Association of Family Physicians says seniors with unintentional weight loss show a high risk for infection, depression and ultimately, early death.

A survey indicated 30 percent of seniors skip at least one meal a day. Another research project found that 16 percent of seniors consume fewer than 1,000 calories a day. As caregivers, it is important to recognize the warning signs of this easily remedied problem before it becomes destructive.


The most obvious sign of appetite loss, thus malnutrition, is a physical effect on a person’s body. Weight or hair loss, bruising and weakness are visible signs of distress. So are persistent and recurrent infections, fatigue, depression, and poor skin integrity. As a caregiver, keeping an open eye to a loved one’s physical appearance and functioning is vital.

Another phenomenon, the prescription “spreadsheet syndrome,” is a large cause of malnutrition in older adults. Medications can alter a body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food, and also impair its natural process of excreting minerals. Some of these medications as cardiac glycosides, lipid-lowering drugs, diuretics, anti-inflammatory prescriptions, antacids, and laxatives.

While this explains noticeable physical side effects to medication, another issue is the mental alteration of taste and smell that drugs cause. Many medications and certain medical conditions themselves contribute to appetite loss in seniors, simply by lessening the senses which cause food cravings. Some medications make foods seem bland and unattractive, while others may prolong the “full” feeling, decreasing a loved one’s temptation to eat. This is especially unhealthy when it affects daily meals, essential for life and health.

Many people are programmed to naturally take medications with a glass of water. For seniors, whose natural appetite lessens as they age, this is a way of “filling up” right before a meal. It is important to talk to the pharmacists or doctors to see if those medicines could be taken after a meal so that they are not full by the time they start eating. The medication is still being taken with food, as the prescription requires, but the appetite is not being spoiled.

Some physical problems are ones a caregiver may not notice on the outside appearance. A good example of this is when an aging loved one has chewing and swallowing difficulties. This can be a result of bad-fitting dentures, or other issues with their teeth, natural or false, that prevent easy chewing/swallowing. A loved one may be embarrassed to say anything about it, or more common, not even realize that is the issue.

A caregiver should ask questions, without making their loved one feel embarrassed or unable to care for themself. A simple fix could be all that is needed to make eating much easier and more enjoyable.


Many seniors are without a spouse and thus left to eat meals solo. They also are prone to eat unhealthy meals, lacking the energy or care to prepare food. The simple social aspect a family takes for granted, your loved one may not. As a caregiver, it is a good habit to recognize this. Even with a busy lifestyle, it is essential to take the time to include a loved one in family mealtime. It may seem unusual to invite them for a Wednesday pizza night, but Sunday afternoons are not the only time they eat! Offer a loved one an invitation to be a part of the family whenever they are able to.

The aging process takes its toll on a loved one physically and mentally, which in turn, can lead to mobility issues. Many seniors suffer from a loss of appetite, attributed to nothing more than the inability to access healthy food. Crowded grocery stores, busy streets, and overfilled parking lots all can place anxiety in the heart of a loved one. Add less-than-ideal weather or the pandemic and social distancing to the mix and it is a scary situation for many elderly people. A simple weekly ride to the grocery store can be a quick fix. If a caregiver can’t be available, ask around a loved one’s neighborhood. Many friends or local retirees are happy to give a ride and serve their neighbors.

Technology has proven to also be a good resource for those unable to shop for themselves. Caregivers can log on, and place grocery orders through online services. This ensures food is consistently being provided for a loved one. Some local grocers may even provide home deliver.

Proper nutrition will benefit both caregiver and the one cared for, with better health. This translates to less doctor appointments, prescription runs, etc. Many elderly people will survive on toast, cereal and other foods that require little preparation. This also puts them at risk for anemia. Caregivers should prepare now to potentially save time later.

Some Suggestions

Drink lots of water. It is the suggested course for many health concerns, but dehydration can also have a big effect on appetite. Tell a loved one not to drink too much before a meal, for the reason suggested earlier, but to keep hydrated throughout an entire day’s time. Water is essential to keeping all body systems functioning at their very best.

Try something new. We all get tired of the “same old” standbys. Imagine at 80, 90 years old, how many meatloaves a person will have eaten? Even a loved one needs change to hold their interest. Help them make a new meal, or better yet, drop off a sample of a new recipe that was hit at home. They will appreciate the effort, and the change in routine.

Flavor is not for “foodies” alone. A little garlic or lemon can spice up a chicken breast, as a dash of nutmeg can take basic rice pudding to another level of enjoyment. Restricted diets only add to the challenge, but some simple seasonings can overcome that challenge as well. A loved one may not have much experience cooking with spices other than basic salt and pepper. A caregiver can offer them some mini-cooking classes, providing options for adding flavor while staying within a doctor’s restrictions.

Eat small portions. Snacking is not just for kids. Many loved ones may not have the desire to eat three substantial meals each day. It is perfectly acceptable and encouraged to eat when hungry. Fresh fruits, vegetables, crackers and cheese, yogurt, or a bowl of soup are all good options.

Count calories. Many will hear these words the day they start a new diet. For someone experiencing a loss of appetite and fearing malnutrition, it is the same concept, though the goal is to consume extra calories, not cut them! When you are older, 70 or 80, there is no such thing as bad food when you are losing weight.

Nutritional supplements should be used with extreme caution, only at the recommendation of a physician. A loved one may not process Vitamin A, for example, as quickly as a younger person. It may cause more problems than solutions. A daily multi-vitamin could be a benefit, as well as a zinc supplement. Talk to a doctor for advice on how to proceed with a vitamin regiment.

At any age exercise is important and it is easy to drift away from daily stretching as we age. It is just as important at 80 as at 8 years old. Moderate strength training will increase metabolism, thus appetite. Many public television stations offer daily stretching programs targeted specifically for an older audience.

Another issue regarding loss of appetite is one a caregiver may not realize is the underlying factor: money. Everyone knows the cost of food continues to rise, and the economy is hitting hard all around. A loved one on a fixed income is no exception. The money issue is even more pronounced in those who can’t comprehend these price trends and why something costs “so much.” As a result, they do not buy the product, and go without necessary nutrition.

A loss of appetite in a loved one can be a very simple problem as loneliness with a quick fix by offering companionship. It also can suggest a more complicated issue such as medication side effects, that require more creative solutions. As a caregiver, it is important to take notice when a loved one starts turning down their favorite bowl of ice cream.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)


Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today