It's easy to worry -- a lot -- about your loved one's diet. Especially when he or she is picky or takes little interest in food, you may wonder whether enough calories are being consumed to maintain strength and health. And you may blame yourself -- unnecessarily -- because our culture equates food with love.
1. First, figure out if it's a real problem.
Many older adults lose a little weight with age, and many once-hearty eaters find that their appetites notch down over the years. This is partly the body's efficient system for remaining healthy. But if your loved one loses a lot of weight (five to ten pounds) in a short amount of time, you'll want to report this to the doctor, since it may be a sign of underlying illness.
Other things that can influence appetite include medications and vitamins; ask the pharmacist whether a new drug or supplement is known to affect taste or appetite, and what -- if anything -- can be done about it.
All that said, many caregivers push more food than their loved ones actually need. When someone we love isn't eating the food we prepare, it's easy to take it personally or to feel we're doing something "wrong" about the way we make and serve it. When it doubt, it's best to get a doctor's and nutritionist's input on whether you have a problem on your hands -- or merely a set of false expectations.
2. Focus on quality more than quantity.
Instead of nagging your loved one endlessly to consume three squares and three snacks, simply make sure that the food you do offer is as calorie-dense and high in quality as you can. Stick to whole, hearty foods, and be generous with condiments like gravy or butter.
3. Consider nonmeat proteins.
For many reasons, older adults can lose a taste for meat and poultry. Difficulty chewing or swallowing, an unrepaired jagged tooth, loose dentures -- any number of physical conditions can make animal proteins harder to consume. See if you can suss out the reason for this change in habit.
Offer lots of nonmeat protein sources, such as eggs, nut butters, cheese, milk, and protein shakes.
4. Monitor snacking.
One reason dinners may go untouched: excess snacking by day. Snacking as a habit is fine -- many older adults have difficulty finishing a big meal -- but you want to watch the quality of those snacks. Crackers alone are a simple carb that quickly turn to sugar. Pair them with peanut butter, almond butter, or cream cheese spread on top, however, and your loved one is also getting some slow-burning protein.
Beware juices, too. While they taste good, they're fairly empty sugar calories. Swap some of that juice for water, tea, or smoothies.
Try packing a "lunch box" each morning with healthful, favorite snack choices that your loved one can easily nibble on all day or bring along when you have doctor appointments or errands.
5. Make eating a treat.
One way to snazz up the appeal of eating more: Make it fun. Stop for ice cream or smoothies while running errands -- it seems like a treat (and it is, for both of you), but it's also a way to get extra calories in. Or "sneak" a chocolate-covered protein bar while you're watching TV together and the rest of the family isn't looking -- and offer your loved one a bite. He or she may not detect the difference between today's sweet protein bars and candy bars but may love to rebel a little with you and share the "secret." For that matter, a contraband candy bar may be even more fun -- not high-quality calories, but calories (and a real treat) nonetheless.