Proper nutrition as you age is important for maintaining a good nutritional status and preventing age-related complications. Meals including foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, protein and low-fat dairy ensure a good healthy balance.
When planning meals, always consider that the elderly have different nutritional needs than younger adults.
Key ingredients when planning meals
Protein. A source of protein with each meal will help to improve muscle mass, strength and functioning. Chicken, nuts, eggs, seafood, beans and lean meats are all excellent sources of protein.
Fruit and Vegetables. These are rich in vitamins and minerals and are an important part of the elderly population’s diet. Dark green, red and orange fruits and vegetables are especially high in nutrients. Ideally half of each meal should be made up of fruits or vegetables. Natural is best but if you are using canned varieties, choose ones without added salt or syrup.
Potassium. This nutrient is one that the elderly are often deficient in. You find potassium in foods such as bananas, oranges and green vegetables which are important for lowering the risk of high blood pressure.
Whole Grains. At least half of the grains we eat should be whole grains as they are rich in fibre and nutrients. Excellent choices for this food type include whole grain bread, cereals, pasta, crackers and tortillas. Eating fibre helps our digestion stay regular, lowers our risk of heart disease, aids in weight control and assists in preventing Type 2 diabetes.
Low-fat dairy. Osteoporosis is one of the most common diseases in the elderly and the risk can be reduced by consuming three servings of dairy products per day. Dairy products are rich in calcium and vitamin D which helps to promote bone health. Compared to younger adults, the elderly have an increased calcium and vitamin D requirement. Choose low-fat varieties such as skimmed milk, cheese or yogurt. If your parent is lactose intolerant, try lactose-free milk or calcium-fortified soy milk.
Dehydration in the elderly is common, but severe dehydration can be fatal, and is a common reason for hospitalisation. Dehydration as we know, is a lack of water, but can also be caused as a side effect of medications such as diuretics and laxatives, or can be as a result of some medical problems such as diarrhoea, vomiting, heat stroke, high blood sugar, infections or excessive exercise.
It is important to encourage your parent to maintain a sufficient level of water consumption throughout the day. Here we list a number of signs and symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration to look out for:
- Thirst (although some may experience a decreased sense of thirst as they get older)
- Dry mouth, dry tongue with thick saliva
- Difficulty passing urine or reduced amounts that are dark yellow
- Dizziness that becomes worse on standing
- Urinary tract infections
- Cramping in arms or legs
- Crying with no or few tears
- Dry, warm skin
- Flushed face
- There are many sources of fluids, coffee, tea, fruit juice and vegetables which all contain water. So, if getting your elderly parent to drink fluids is a task, try serving more foods with high water content.
- Place a lightweight jug of water and a glass within easy reach of them. Making water easily accessible will encourage your parent to drink more.
- Offer drinks at different temperatures. Your parent may actually prefer hot drinks to cold ones or vice versa. Test the theory to find out which they prefer and offer a variety and mixture of hot and cold drinks.
- Try a savoury drink too. Broths, especially on a cold day, may be more enjoyable to drink than just a cup of tea or coffee.
- Be creative. Make ice lollies from fruit juice or a mix of fruit juice and water. Make flavoursome smoothies with different textures as these tend to be more enjoyable to drink than plain old milk or water! You can even add kale, spinach or other vegetables to make it full of nutrients. Head online and see the many recipes there are for smoothies.
Vitamins and Supplements
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that we need for the body to function well. Whether or not we need to take supplements in addition to achieving the required amount through our food intake is really something that comes down to personal choice. Both vitamins and supplements become more important for older people and here we give you some information to ensure your parent is getting what they need and how.
Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin). Vitamin D insufficiency is widespread in older people and can lead to an increased risk of falls. People aged 65 years and over should ensure they are getting enough, the best way is thorough food rich in the nutrient. Oily fish, orange juice, milk breakfast cereals and cheese all offer good amounts of Vitamin D. Being active, especially outdoors, can protect against osteoporosis, help with muscle strength, improve coordination, flexibility and balance. If you believe your parent is not getting enough Vitamin D, you should consider introducing a supplement to their diet.
Vitamin C. Oral and dental health is extremely important when we get older when we may start to lose our teeth. Sugar intake, especially in the absence of good dental hygiene, can cause dental issues too. Limiting your parent’s sugar intake and increasing their Vitamin C intake can reduce dental erosion.
Vitamin B12. This vitamin is needed to make new red blood cells, without enough of this vitamin the body makes abnormally large red blood cells that do not work properly. Elderly people could be at risk of a wide-range of symptoms that may be easily confused with other underlying medical conditions. Getting enough Vitamin B12 is a challenge for older people because they can’t absorb it from food as well as younger people. Vitamin B12 can be topped up by eating more meat, salmon, cod, milk, some dairy products and eggs.
Folic Acid. More commonly recommended for pregnant women but the elderly need to increase their intake to reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease. Too little of this essential B vitamin can also lead to anaemia. Folic acid is rich in foods such as broccoli, liver, whole grain cereals and leafy green vegetables.
Calcium. Required to play many roles for the health of the body, but mainly for building and maintaining strong healthy bones. Coming up short on calcium has been shown to increase the risk of brittle bones, fractures and osteoporosis. Calcium rich foods include milk, dairy products, kale and broccoli.
Potassium. Potassium helps to keep our bones strong but also helps to reduce high blood pressure and the risk of kidney stones. Fruits and vegetables are by far the richest sources of potassium, such as bananas, plums and prunes. But let’s not forget the humble potato, their skin is particularly rich in potassium.
Magnesium. This plays an important role in keeping your immune system in tip-top shape, your heart healthy and your bones strong. The absorption of magnesium decreases with age and some medications taken by the elderly may also reduce the absorption. Although many whole foods contain magnesium it is often lost in the cooking process. Eating unprocessed foods will help and ensuring to eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Why take a supplement?
The older we get the more difficult it can become to digest, absorb and metabolise nutrients. Some medications may also inhibit the whole process. Sometimes we may need a little extra help to get the vitamins and minerals required so supplements may be needed, especially for those who do not have a diet containing enough of the vitamins and minerals needed to maintain good health.
It is also important to note that you might not realise that taking a high dosage, or taking them for too long, can do more harm than good, especially if you’re already taking prescription medication, which most elderly parents are. It is therefore important to ask the GP if it’s OK to take vitamins and minerals in addition to prescribed medicines.
Ways to encourage the elderly to eat
As we get older, our appetite often decreases due to many factors such as hormones, medication and illnesses like dementia and depression. This is a real worry for the elderly as they can be prone to extreme weight loss making them frail and vulnerable to further health problems.
Here are some tips to help you encourage your parent to eat:
Set a structured eating routine. The elderly are creatures of habit, it makes them feel safe and comfortable. So, keeping to a meal schedule consisting of breakfast, lunch and dinner with regular snacks and drinks will help to maintain regular eating habits.
Providing small portions. Putting a big meal in front of your parent may have the opposite affect and actually put them off eating. Serve a small portion to begin with. Second helpings can always be offered if your parent would like more.
Be creative with the ingredients. If you are finding it hard to encourage your parent to eat the sufficient amount of vegetables and fibre, it might be time to be a bit sneaky. Your parent doesn’t even have to know if you’ve added a few more extra vegetables to their meals if you blend them in using a food processor.
Food for thought. Use the rules of food physiology and make the food look as appealing as possible. Presentation can be the key; experiment with different colours and textures and keep a food diary until you find what works best.
Personal likes and dislikes. We can all be very picky with our likes and dislikes of food. Memories of how mum made it can dictate whether we eat it or not, and the same goes for our parents. Your parent is all too aware how food tasted when they were in charge of cooking, so offering foods that are very different could be off putting. Stick to traditional and what they know – Sunday roasts, Sheppard’s pie, fish and chips and steer clear of exotic dishes they may not be familiar with.
Public Health England has an Eatwell Guide offering lots more information.