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What to give elderly who refuse to eat?

Many elderly people experience a decreased appetite as they age for a variety of reasons. When an elderly person stops eating enough, they can quickly become malnourished. This can lead to serious health complications. As a caregiver, it’s important to determine why your elderly loved one is refusing food and find creative ways to encourage them to eat. In this article, we’ll explore some common reasons the elderly stop eating and provide tips for overcoming appetite issues.

Quick Answers To Key Questions

Why do the elderly stop eating?

There are many reasons an elderly person may start eating less, including:

– Loss of taste and smell – As we age, our sense of taste and smell can diminish, making food seem less appealing.

– Medication side effects – Some medicines reduce appetite or make food taste different.

– Underlying illness – Medical conditions like dementia, depression, cancer, and more can suppress appetite.

– Difficulty chewing or swallowing – Dental problems or conditions like dysphagia make eating painful or dangerous.

– Reduced mobility – Conditions that make it hard to shop, cook, and feed oneself cut down on eating.

– Loneliness or isolation – Eating alone can dampen appetite for some seniors.

What health risks come with poor nutrition in the elderly?

Malnutrition in the elderly can lead to:

– Muscle wasting and weakness

– Greater risk of falls and fractures

– Delayed wound healing

– Depressed immune function

– Higher hospitalization rates

– Increased risk of infection

– Cognitive impairment

– Overall decline in health

How can you get an elder with a poor appetite to eat more?

Tips to encourage an elder to eat include:

– Prepare favorite or culturally appropriate foods

– Make mealtimes social with conversation

– Add calorie-rich ingredients to dishes

– Serve frequent small meals and snacks

– Check medications for appetite-suppressing side effects

– Rule out underlying illness causing appetite loss

– Adjust diet textures if chewing or swallowing is difficult

Common Causes For Appetite Loss In The Elderly

There are many potential causes for appetite loss in the elderly. Here are some of the most common:

Age-Related Taste And Smell Changes

As we get older, our sense of taste and smell often diminish. Studies show that after age 60, taste buds begin to decrease in number and become less sensitive. Smell sensation also starts to decline. Since taste and smell play such critical roles in flavor perception and enjoyment of food, these natural changes directly impact appetite and nutrition. Food simply becomes less appealing.

Medication Side Effects

Many medications commonly prescribed to the elderly carry side effects that suppress appetite. These include:

– Diuretics for blood pressure can cause nausea or metallic tastes.

– Antibiotics may lead to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

– Antidepressants like fluoxetine often reduce appetite.

– Pain medications like morphine cause constipation that limits appetite.

– Chemotherapy drugs severely affect taste and overall appetite.

If a new medication seems to be diminishing an elder’s appetite, speak to their doctor about alternatives or coping strategies. Never stop or change dosages without medical supervision.

Chronic Medical Conditions

Many chronic diseases that are more common in older adults interfere with normal hunger cues and eating capacity. These include:

Dementia: Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias damage brain areas that regulate appetite. This causes a decreased drive to eat. Dementia also impairs eating skills like using utensils, chewing, and swallowing.

Depression: Appetite changes are one of the hallmark symptoms of clinical depression. Elders may lose motivation to eat or lose the sense of pleasure from eating.

COPD: Shortness of breath from chronic lung diseases makes eating more difficult. COPD also increases metabolism and calorie needs while reducing appetite.

Cancer: Tumors and chemotherapy both weaken appetite through nausea, distorted taste and smell, and other side effects.

Diabetes: Uncontrolled diabetes suppresses appetite by causing nausea, vomiting, and complications like gastroparesis that slow digestion.

Chewing and Swallowing Problems

When basic eating actions like chewing and swallowing become difficult or painful, elders often start avoiding meals. Common causes of these problems include:

– Missing, decaying, or ill-fitting dentures
– Gum disease and tooth loss
– Dry mouth from medications
– Dysphagia or narrowing of the esophagus
– Facial muscle weakness such as in Parkinson’s disease
– Oral or throat cancers

Consulting with dentists and doctors can help identify and treat conditions interfering with eating mechanics in the elderly. Adapting food textures is often needed.

Reduced Mobility

Arthritis, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, recovering from surgery or illness, and other mobility-limiting conditions make it harder for seniors to shop, cook, and feed themselves optimally. Finding ways to assist with these activities can help elders maintain nutrition. Consider meal delivery services, grocery shopping assistance, and specialized utensils for eating if needed.

Social Isolation or Loneliness

Eating alone day after day can drain an elder’s motivation to eat well. Seeking out community meal programs at senior centers or places of worship can provide social stimulation and encouragement around food. Regular visits from family and friends also help.

Health Consequences of Poor Nutrition in the Elderly

Inadequate nutrition in the elderly poses substantial health risks. Malnutrition makes seniors more vulnerable to infections, chronic diseases, and even death. Here is an overview of some key health consequences:

Muscle Loss

Without adequate protein and calories from food, elderly people lose muscle mass and strength through a process called sarcopenia. This makes even basic daily activities like rising from a chair or walking more difficult. Sarcopenia also worsens osteoporosis and risk of falls and fractures.

Impaired Immune Function

Malnutrition deprives the body of important nutrients needed to maintain immune defenses against viruses, bacteria, and other invaders. Weakened immunity in seniors leaves them highly susceptible to pneumonia, influenza, gastrointestinal illnesses, and skin infections.

Poor Wound Healing

Adequate protein and vitamins like A, C, and zinc are required to repair damaged skin tissue through wound healing. Elders lacking proper nutrition can face chronic, non-healing wounds and pressure ulcers/bed sores.

Increased Hospitalizations

Malnourished seniors end up hospitalized more frequently, especially for falls and fractured bones. Malnutrition increases surgery complications and hospital-acquired infections as well.

Higher Mortality Rate

Studies confirm that protein-energy malnutrition significantly raises elderly patients’ risk of dying. One analysis found elderly hospital patients with malnutrition had a 300% higher mortality rate.

Cognitive Decline

Malnutrition may accelerate cognitive decline in the elderly, worsening dementia or creating new impairment. Key nutrients like B vitamins and antioxidants support brain health.

Strategies to Improve Appetite and Nutrition in Elderly

Boosting food intake in elderly loved ones starts with understanding the root causes of their appetite loss and creating a customized plan. These tips can help elders eat more:

Prepare Favorite or Culturally Appropriate Foods

Tap into nostalgia and comfort food preferences by serving dishes the elder has enjoyed for decades or foods that reflect their cultural heritage. Familiar flavors can enhance appeal.

Make Meals Socially Enjoyable

Eat together and engage in lively conversation focused on positive subjects the elder enjoys. This can distract from the mechanics of eating and stimulate appetite hormones.

Add Nutrient-Rich Ingredients

Enhance nutrition by blending in protein powders, dried milk, wheat germ, vegetable oils, or grated cheese. Fortify mashed potatoes or oatmeal, for example.

Serve Small, Frequent Meals

Large meals intimidate weak appetites. Five to six tiny meals spaced closely together are easier for the elderly to manage.

Consider Nutritional Supplements

Ask doctors about liquid meal replacements or vitamin supplements if weight loss persists. But real food should take priority.

Check All Medications

Review drug regimens with doctors and pharmacists to identify any appetite suppressing side effects. Adjustments may help.

Treat Underlying Illnesses

Seek medical care for conditions contributing to appetite loss like untreated depression, advancing dementia, new onset diabetes, or swallowing disorders. Proper management can often improve nutritional status.

Adapt Food Textures

Dentures, gum disease, dysphagia, or mouth sores may require adjusting food consistency. Try chopped, ground, pureed, or soaked and softened foods.

Assist with Shopping and Cooking

Pitch in to keep pantries stocked with nutritious foods the senior enjoys and prepare meals. Meal delivery services are another option.

Consider Supplemental or Tube Feeding

If weight loss becomes life-threatening, a gastroenterologist may recommend short-term liquid nutrition through a nasogastric tube. Longer-term feeding tubes may also be appropriate in some cases under medical guidance. But families should first exhaust efforts to stimulate natural eating.

Example High-Calorie, High-Protein Foods and Snacks

Here is a table with examples of nutrient-dense food and drink options to offer an elderly person with a poor appetite:

Category Foods and Snacks
Beverages Whole milk, milkshakes, smoothies with protein powder or yogurt, juices, nutritional supplement drinks like Ensure or Boost
Breads and Grains Whole wheat bread, bagels, muffins or biscuits with butter or nut butter, oatmeal made with whole milk and dried fruits/nuts, cream of wheat cereal
Proteins Eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, hard cheeses, deli meats, tuna fish, salmon, chicken, turkey, beef
Fruits and Vegetables Avocado slices on sandwiches, banana slices with peanut butter, cooked carrots with butter and brown sugar, roasted sweet potatoes
Soups Creamy chicken, potato, or tomato soups, chowders, vegetable puree soups
Desserts Puddings, custards, frozen yogurt, sherbet, cookies, cakes with extra butter/eggs


Appetite often wanes in the elderly due to age-related changes, illnesses, medication side effects, trouble chewing or swallowing, and limited mobility. But poor nutrition can severely impact health, independence, immunity, cognitive function, and quality of life. Caregivers must be proactive in identifying causes of appetite decline in the elderly and taking steps to encourage food intake. Focus on favorite nourishing foods, build social time around meals, enrich calories/protein in dishes, treat medical issues, and adapt food textures. With creativity and patience, it’s often possible to meet an elder’s nutritional needs and support their overall health even with a diminished appetite.