For seniors, maintaining a healthy diet plan isn’t as simple as just following the USDA’s recommended nutritional guidelines. Seniors have nutritional needs that are different from those of other groups, and many seniors require special diet plans to avoid ingredients that interact with medications, exacerbate medical conditions, or lead to digestive issues.
Managing a senior diet plan is a fact of life for millions of seniors across the country, including many who reside in senior living communities. Successfully managing special diet plans in senior living communities relies on excellent communication between dietary staff, your loved one, and your loved one’s medical providers. You might have to serve as the go-between to ensure dietary staff has the information they need and that your loved one’s special diet plan is working for him or her.
Managing a Senior Diet Plan Through Communication
Not only are senior living communities accustomed to meeting the special dietary needs of different residents, but it’s a top priority for them, given that nutrition is a key to "healthy aging." Proper senior nutrition promotes brain health, boosts the immune system, helps manage chronic conditions, makes muscles stronger—and prevents strokes, bone loss, and even some forms of cancer.
The challenge, however, is that the definition of “proper” senior nutrition is a moving target. It changes based on senior living residents’ medications, medical backgrounds, and disease progressions. Meeting the dietary needs of seniors is a fluid process that requires ongoing attention for staff, seniors, and even their loved ones.
Senior living communities are well-equipped to develop custom dietary plans to meet the individual needs of residents, but it’s critical for family caregivers to play an active role in communicating their loved one’s dietary needs to staff:
- Updates: Relaying the latest dietary recommendations and guidelines from your loved one’s physician directly to senior living staff will ensure that they aren’t lost in the mix.
- Checking In: Talking to your loved one about his or her diet plan on a regular basis will give you a sense of how well it’s being managed; talking to your loved one’s friends and fellow senior living residents about your loved one’s eating habits is a good idea, too.
- Familiarity: The better senior living staff know your loved one, the better they can manage a senior diet plan; making your loved one’s food preferences, views, and opinions known will help senior living staff truly get to know your loved one and better meet his or her nutritional needs.
Diabetes, which impacts at least a quarter of senior living residents across the country, is just one example of a medical condition that a senior diet plan can help manage. Oral health issues are another common reason for specialized senior diet plans in senior living. And Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia present nutritional challenges that require senior diet plans for those in memory care. All of these conditions will require constant attention to help manage your loved one’s senior diet plan to meet changing needs.
Help a Special Diet Plan Stick by Making It Appealing
After watching a loved one help him- or herself to second and third portions at family gatherings for years, it might be hard to imagine him or her ever losing his or her taste for foods that he or she loves. But taste and smell disturbances affect the diets of the vast majority of seniors at some point.
Taste and smell disturbances can affect appetites, which can make managing special diet plans a challenge. And the reasons for these disturbances aren’t exactly clear, but loss of taste buds, side effects of medications, and progression of diseases have all been floated as ideas.
Making meals attractive and appealing to your loved one can help trigger an important “cephalic phase response” that will prepare his or her body for digestion and help boost his or her appetite—which is a key to managing diet plans. The Institute on Aging offers these suggestions to help encourage healthy eating habits:
- Spice It Up: Talk to your loved one’s physician about possible ways to add extra flavor to meals without deviating from a senior diet plan and bring those suggestions back to the senior living community’s culinary staff.
- More Bang: Large portions can be daunting for seniors without much of an appetite; finding nutrient-rich foods that come in small portions like avocado, peanut butter, olive oil, granola, and protein shakes will pack a greater nutritional punch.
- Book It: Having your loved one eat around the same times each day can help his or her body anticipate and prepare for mealtime, improving his or her appetite.
- Social Hour: Making sure your loved one is making it to the dining room to eat and socialize with his or her neighbors will help prevent feelings of depression and isolation, proven appetite suppressants in seniors.
Nobody likes eating foods that don’t taste good to them or eating when he or she is not hungry. Tailoring a senior diet plan to your loved one’s personal tastes and preferences as much as possible will make it easier—and more enjoyable—for him or her to stick to it.
The Final Course: Managing a Special Diet Plan in a Senior Living Facility
Senior diet plans are constantly changing to meet changing health conditions, medications, and guidance from physicians. Playing an active role in your loved one’s senior diet plan can help ensure that his or her current needs are being met and that mealtime is a pleasant, enjoyable experience.
Serving as a go-between for communications between a physician, your loved one, and senior living staff is a great place to start. And finding ways to cater diet plans to your loved one’s personal tastes and preferences will make eating more enjoyable, which, in turn, will make it easier to manage senior diet plans.