If you’re the caregiver of an older adult you know how hard it is to find the right combination of nutritious foods for your loved one. While it may be frustrating to figure what to buy and when, it helps to have an idea of how the aging process unfolds and how it makes nutrition so important but yet so tricky.
THE AGE EFFECT: INSIDE and OUT
Just as there are common changes associated with growth and development in our younger years such as puberty and growth spurts, there are common changes associated with aging. These changes occur at different times for each individual and have little to do with disease. Most of us are familiar with the more obvious changes like the decrease in collagen which is the substance responsible for keeping skin smooth and wrinkle-free or the reduction in melanin which is the substance responsible for giving our hair its color, hence the inevitable gray hair.
Less commonly known are the changes that take place deep inside the body. As we age several of our most important organs such as the liver, kidneys, and stomach are changing too. The size of our liver decreases and becomes less efficient at absorbing and regulating cholesterol. The processing time of our kidneys, which are responsible for filtering out waste through urine, slows down. Our digestive system is different; there is less production of stomach acid which contributes to slower food processing and stomach emptying. Bowel elimination is slower (increasing the risk of constipation) and the salivary glands (taste buds) are getting smaller in size too.
As taste buds change, appetite changes too and there is likely less desire to eat large meals in one sitting. Large meals place significant demand on the body: more insulin is needed to break down the carbohydrates, the stomach has to work harder to digest the food and the bowels have to work harder to eliminate it all.
In addition to natural changes, there are many other factors that impact nutrition in the older adult. Medications, herbs, and supplements work well at restoring our bodies to health however many cause side effects that make food less appetizing including dry mouth or a metallic taste in the mouth. Some medications taken to reduce blood pressure remove fluid from the body that, if not replaced, causes very uncomfortable constipation. Certain pain medications can also cause severe, potentially life threatening constipation. Oral health–tooth decay, ill-fitting dentures, gum disease and oral sores–all impact the ability to chew, swallow, and otherwise enjoy a meal.
A collaborative approach with your healthcare provider and pharmacist is the first step to relieving the frustration of trying to figure out things on your own.
Modified MyPyramid for Older Adults courtesy of Tufts University, Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman, School of Nutrition Science and Policy
When physical health checks out fine, farmer’s markets are a great way to solve the “what’s for dinner?” question for older adults. Not only does a stroll through a farmer’s market harken back to an era when people knew (and cared about) where their food came from, but they’re a great way to get your loved one moving and out of the house. Farmer’s markets are stimulating to the senses; fruits and veggies come in a variety of rich, bold colors and a wide range of textures and shapes. Older adults, particularly those who may have grown up on a farm or near a farm, may remember interesting recipes that make dinner less of a chore and more of an adventure. Lastly, fruits and veggies that go straight from the farm to the table just taste better.
September is National Fruits and Veggies – More Matters Month. Check out the wealth of information available for older adults on nutritional wellness at Nutrition.gov . Having trouble finding a farmer’s market near you? Look no further, click the USDA National Farmer’s Market Directory for help. If you’re in the state of Maryland where we are, click here for the 2015 Maryland Farmer’s Market Directory.
Remember that caregiving is not a solo sport. The best approach is a team approach. Nurse practitioners, doctors, dieticians, pharmacists, and social workers are all valuable members to have on your caregiving team. If your loved one is unable to access healthy foods due to transportation, lack of financial resources or lack of access be sure to reach out to your state or local Department of Aging for help.