The Arbor Company Senior Living Blog

Resources for Families: What to Do When Your Parent Won't Eat

May 2, 2016 10:31:00 AM / Laura Ellen Christian Laura Ellen Christian


Few things are more unsettling than watching your mother or father waste away because of a dwindling interest in breakfast, lunch and dinner. You might feel frustrated, concerned, even hopeless about their reluctance to eat -- but as tough as this issue is, a new approach or two might help draw them to the dining table.

When mealtimes are a struggle, don’t despair: consider this advice from our experts about what to do when your elderly loved one refuses to eat.

Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods

Simply increasing the volume of food isn’t likely to be an effective strategy, as your loved one may simply be unwilling to eat large amounts of food. Instead, focus on serving your parent their favorite foods, especially those that are packed with nutrients such as lean poultry and meats, whole grains, and fruits and veggies. If you are concerned about too much weight loss, be sure to add in healthy high-calorie foods like nuts or nut butters, olive oil or avocados.

Create Meals With “ Zing”

As people age their sense of taste and smell tends to diminish, a problem that can be aggravated by certain medical conditions such as head injuries, head or neck cancer, or neurological disorders such as dementia or Parkinson’s Disease. Whatever the reason for your parent’s impaired taste, they may be persuaded to eat a little more if their meals are highly flavored.

Experiment by using herbs and spices or flavored vinegar to season food, but don’t over-rely on salt, as too much can lead to high blood pressure. (Salt substitutes aren’t the best way to increase flavor either as most have too much potassium.) The same goes for sugar, which can cause problems with blood sugar, especially in those with diabetes or prediabetes.

Make Meals More Colorful

Color can also play a role when it comes to eating, especially for seniors living with dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, people with dementia can sometimes find it difficult to distinguish food from the plate or the plate from the table, To combat this problem, increase the food colors on the plate (think orange carrots, green broccoli or purple-red beets), either separating them so that the colors are defined, or serving one dish at a time. If your dishes are colorful, consider switching to white dishes in order to enhance the contrast further.

Review Medications

Some antibiotics, blood pressure pills and antidepressants as well as medications to lower anxiety or cholesterol suppress the sensation of hunger or cause a persistent bad taste in the mouth. In addition, some medications make foods taste metallic or cause nausea or swallowing problems. If your loved one experiences any of these side effects, ask your parent’s physician whether another drug could be substituted. At the very least, they might be able to add another medication that could correct the side effects.

Look for Dental Issues

Mom or Dad may be avoiding foods that are hard to chew because they have sore teeth or gums or ill-fitting dentures. If this is the case, a trip to a dentist or denturist would be in good order. In the meantime, try replacing pork chops and steak with ground or shredded meat, or focus on softer protein sources such as yogurt, protein smoothies, or cooked peas or beans. Also, cook vegetables instead of serving them raw and offer nutritious grains like rice, oatmeal or quinoa. Adding gravy or sauce can help soften food, and chopping, mashing or pureeing foods can also do the trick.

Make Mealtime a Social Time

There is more to mealtime than simply the consuming of nutritious food – there is a whole social element that simply can’t be ignored. Sadly, people who live alone often feel less motivated to prepare meals, let alone eat them. In fact, research shows that people consume about 44 percent more food when eating with others as opposed to dining alone. If you can swing it, make it a habit to invite Mom or Dad for dinner and take them out to dine at a local restaurant occasionally. In addition, see if other family members, friends or neighbors could drop by sometimes to share a meal and a visit with your parent. Another option is to investigate whether local senior centers, churches or other community organizations provide group meal programs that your parent could attend.

Ultimately, malnutrition can lead to significant health problems in seniors – so if you’ve tried everything to no avail, it’s high time to speak to your parent’s health care provider, who can examine them for any underlying physical conditions and suggest other solutions.

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Topics: Resources for Families

Laura Ellen Christian

Laura Ellen Christian

Laura is the Vice President of Engagement at The Arbor Company.

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