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Do You Know an Elder Going Hungry?

You may recall a story in the news not too long ago about a man in his 80s who returned home from cancer treatment at the hospital and found himself too weak to run errands, including shopping for food. Instead, he called 911. While professional in home care could help someone with such a need, the point is that he was hungry and there are many older adults like him living with malnutrition.

Some studies estimate 5-10% of elderly people living in a “community setting” are malnourished; about 60% of hospitalized older adults and anywhere from 35 to 85% in long-term care facilities are experiencing malnutrition. With people age 65 years and older now the largest population segment, these numbers are likely to increase.

To help, the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition sponsors Malnutrition Awareness Week, Sept. 26-30, with two days devoted to discussing the topic of malnutrition in older adults.

“Despite increasing awareness of malnutrition and its effects, one in three patients continue to be malnourished with an annual cost of $156.7 billion for disease-related malnutrition in the U.S.,” the organization explains on their website. “Malnutrition is not just contained within the parameters of the hospital or in a certain population. It is also becoming a leading cause of hospital re-admissions for the aging individual.”

During this week, there are webinars about nutrition, including two days devoted to malnutrition in the older adult population.

Malnutrition: What & Why

Basically malnutrition is the condition that occurs when a person’s body does not get enough nutrients. When it comes to seniors, malnutrition is not as simple as eating enough calories or the right kinds of foods.

Older adults are more likely to have underlying medical conditions, such as dementia, that can lead to physical difficulties with eating. The senses can become diminished—eyesight, taste, smell—and decrease appetite or ability to feed one’s self. Medications can also play a role in appetite or how the body absorbs nutrients.

According to the Mayo Clinic, other factors can also contribute to malnutrition:

  • Restricted diets, such as a low-salt diet or low sugar diet, might alleviate one medical condition while decreasing nutritional intake.
  • Living on a limited income might affect how much food someone buys and therefore lead to not getting enough nourishment.
  • Loneliness can cause a person to stop eating when they are alone and cannot enjoy cooking or eating a meal with loved ones. When someone is depressed, it can also make them lose interest in food.
  • Dental hygiene issues that cause pain when chewing.

One Bite At a Time

The signs of malnutrition include weight loss, more bruising and poor wound healing. Spending time with loved ones during mealtimes can be an opportunity to observe nutritional intake.

A health care provider should be consulted to address the root cause of any nutritional deficits and make recommendations to improve diet. Other tips to improve appetite and eating are:

  • Encourage more physical activity, which can increase hunger.
  • Engage a service like Meals on Wheels or in home care to prepare or deliver healthy meals.
  • Experiment with new flavors to spice up a dull diet.
  • Sneak in healthy treats, like a fruit smoothie between meals or sprinkle nuts on yogurt.

Eating well can improve a person’s chances of living independently and living life fully at every age.

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