How can I get my parent to eat without nagging?

10 answers | Last updated: Dec 08, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My 72-year-old father is losing weight very quickly since his diagnosis with metastatic colon cancer and says he has no appetite. I don't want to hound him to eat, but I am so worried. How can I help him keep weight on without turning into the "food police"?

Expert Answers

Michele Francis is a clinical social worker at the University of California, San Francisco, Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The short answer is that in this situation there's only so much you can do. As caregivers, we see food as love. And when the person we're caring for is losing weight, in our minds food becomes medicine, too. Of course you desperately want your father to eat, and you're spending lots of time trying to think of the right thing to cook -- and then it's so frustrating when he doesn't want to eat it, or can't eat much of it. I see this all the time.

I suggest starting by talking to your father openly about your concerns and asking him what solution he thinks would work best for him. I did this recently with a cancer patient and he came up with a solution that worked really well. We asked him what he'd like to eat and he said he just couldn't predict ahead of time what would seem appetizing to him. He asked if we could prepare small amounts of lots of different things and then he could see what he felt like eating when he was ready to eat. Of course this can seem daunting since it's more work for you, but you can freeze and store portions so there are lots of selections at any given moment.

Another solution: Try not to be attached to how much your father eats. If you've made the food available, that's the important thing, and that's how you can show your love. Beyond that, you have to let go of it. It helps to keep reminding yourself that your father is battling with his appetite too. He knows he needs to eat, and he can't help it that suddenly things taste awful or he feels sick and doesn't want food. During cancer treatment, the body's need for food changes. Keep in mind that chemotherapy is very hard on the body, and it's under tremendous strain. You're introducing a foreign substance into the system and you can't do that and then expect it to react as usual. Your job is to provide supportive care to help his body get through this.

One strategy I teach caregivers is to relax their focus on food when their patient is going through chemo or radiation, when they really may not be able to eat much. Then after or between treatments, you can focus on building the body back up. If there are periods when your father feels more like eating, give him really healthy food that's high in calories to strengthen him for the next treatment period.

Community Answers

Sadyear08 answered...

Try giving your loved one Ensure.  We lost my father to stage 4 Lung cancer this summer after only 6 short months from diagnosis and treatment.  We too went through the non eating phase, but we could get him to drink the ensures which come in a variety of flavors and are full of all the vitamins and nutrients normal food has.

A fellow caregiver answered...

My mother is in the same boat, but we have come up with a couple ideas since she doesn't like milk products (Ensure won't work for her).

We did buy some protein powder and added it to a few foods, like pudding and fruit smoothie drinks.  We also tried protein bars, which are a hit (at least the chocolate ones were).  You just have to find ones that the person may like, especially if they have dentures. Read the box for the amt of protein in each- can vary.


Jaye answered...

I think that this can be tricky.  It seems that often time the things folks used to really like they just don't like anymore.  Some of the "chunky soups" that you can buy have good flavored broths.  Also try things like noodles or orzo pasta.  Pudding and custard that are made from scratch are very nutrious and can be easily digested.  

A fellow caregiver answered...

I agree with  all of  the answers above.  My dad would only eat potato soup.  My mom fell in love with pears - - - I bought lots of pears and the other day she told me she didn't  know  why I fed her pears when she doesn't like them and never has,  It is very frustrating.  Give them ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING that they want WHENEVER they want it.  People can live longer with little food than they can fluids so give him lots of fluids.  I am there with you and the food,  mom likes junk food so I give her lots of cookies, candy, etc.  They are empty calories but it is calories.  Good Luck.

Donnab answered...

Ensure or Boost are the best answer.  My Daddy drank 2-3 a day and never had nausea or lost weight.  Also, herbal supplements can help.  Consult a pharmacist who specializes in holistic treatments - they will be able to direct you.

James ballard answered...

11:17 one seems to be addressing the obvious possibility of the "depression" component, or the distinct  philosophical possibility that your father may just be "ready to let go", but too afraid to tell anybody.

At 72, your father is an adult, and he has the right to make these kind of decisions.

Colon cancer can be a very painful, prolonged process. If you want to make sure your father has as little pain as possible, you need to get his doctor to give you the details on what the best recommended pain management care would be best for your father.

I hope you are close to your father. Lots of "quality time" would be the second order of the day; but "quality time" will be sabotaged without good pain management.    

Luck to you and your father.  J.B. 6/17/09

Annmjensen answered...

I have been making home made milk shakes for mom to alternate with the Ensure. I can slip lecitin or protein into these and she doesn't notice. They go down fast and easy and she will never turn them down. Can often talk her into a PBJ sandwich alongside the shake as well. Also been doing a lot more crock pot things than I would normally do, cuz they tend to wind up very soft for her and it sneaks in some veggies (which she avoids). She also likes the little packages of things - pudding/fruit cups, snack bags of cookies, single serve soups. Makes her feel like it isn't so much food she can never finish it. Baby food cereals mixed with applesauce or juice are very smooth too. If I need to shove in calories, I mix the baby food cereal with whipping cream as well as pureed fruit & sugar. agree - empty calories better than none at this point and some of her meds need to be with food.

A fellow caregiver answered...

when i asked our pharmacist for suggestions re: a high-calorie/nutrient product for my 92 year old parents, she recommended a product called "ShandiShake."
the label states that one serving (packet mixed with 8 ounces of whole milk) provides 600 calories. it tastes like a "real" vanilla shake (have yet to try the chocolate flavor). mom and dad both seem to like it, and it supplements their daily intake...however, it IS rather pricey.

A fellow caregiver answered...

My mother battling pancreatic cancer undergoing chemotherapy treatment has been a challenge to keep her weight on. Since she was diagnosed at 140 lbs to a fragile 67lbs over a course of a year and half. She has trouble eating and dislike the taste like ensure and boost which were to sweet for her. She tried and dislike the powered protein ad well.

The one thing that is working for her is a liquid medication called Megace which stimulates appetite and I tell you I wish the doctor prescibed this much sooner cause its so hard for her to gain weight!

Megace is working wonders! She's eating quite a bit more which is helping her gain her weight back slowly. Better late than never. I hope this post helps out a lot as I don't blog or write reviews often.