If you have a parent living alone, you may worry about their eating habits. You might wonder if Mom is looking thin, or if Dad’s habit of eating cold cereal for dinner is harmful. Unfortunately, malnutrition is a common concern among the elderly, especially if they live alone. Cooking for one may seem like too much bother, ill-fitting dentures might make chewing difficult, and dietary restrictions can make meal planning seem overwhelming. There are many reasons why those living alone find cooking and eating well an impossible task. Perhaps Mom did all the cooking, and now that she is gone Dad can’t even boil an egg. Add in aging taste buds, and dinner may end up being a sleeve of crackers washed down with soda, or a bowl of popcorn in front of the television. Over time, this type of behavior can lead to malnutrition, a state where the body isn’t receiving the nutrients it needs to function properly. Studies have shown that men are more prone to this type of malnutrition than women.
What to Look for
Next time you are eating with your loved one, pay attention to how much they eat. If they won’t share their weight with you, assess how their clothing fits – are their shirts getting baggier? Do they suddenly need to use a belt? Or perhaps they seem to be gaining weight. Encourage them to get a blood test to diagnose any nutritional deficiencies, which may require supplementation. You might suspect malnutrition if your parent has decreased energy, trouble keeping warm, a loss of muscle mass, or slower wound healing. In more severe cases, you might notice that their skin appears drier and thinner, or that their hair has lost its luster. Malnutrition can compromise the immune system as well, making it harder to bounce back after an illness. If your loved one’s doctor diagnoses any deficiencies, here’s what you can do next:
Help them out. If Mom doesn’t know how to cook, show her how to make a stir fry or simple rice and bean dish. When she does cook, encourage her to make enough for leftovers. Offer to help with food preparation regularly. You could cut up vegetables to store in the fridge, make a week’s worth of salad, prepare a pot of oatmeal to reheat for breakfast, or take her shopping for produce. You can also look into Meals on Wheels, or a similar meal delivery service.
Set dinner dates. Have Dad over for dinner on a set night each week, and ask other family members and friends to do the same. Encourage him to attend meal events offered in the community. Suggest that he share cooking with a friend – maybe one Tuesday Dad goes to their house, the next week they come to his.
Spice things up. Aging taste buds need more flavor to stay interested. Stock up on seasonings, especially ones that don’t involve salt and pack a big flavor punch, like chili powder, cinnamon, or cumin. If your parent can handle spicy foods, this is a great time to try them out.
Keep convenience in mind. Some nights Dad probably just won’t want to cook. Keep a few easy favorites on hand, like ingredients for grilled cheese or tuna sandwiches, cans of low-sodium soup, or frozen whole grain bagels with peanut butter. Keep simple, healthy snack makings on hand, too. Peeled, hard-boiled eggs, veggie sticks with a flavorful dip, or a premade fruit salad are just a few options.
Consider their living situation. If your parent needs more help with meal preparation than you can give, it may be time to broach the subject of their living situation with them. A move to someone else’s home, or to an assisted living environment with communal meals and meal preparation assistance, can make all the difference to your loved one’s health.