What To Do When Elderly Won’t Eat

Elderly individuals often face a decrease in appetite, which can lead to significant health concerns. This issue is multifaceted, involving changes in sensory perception, psychological factors, and physical health. 

Understanding these changes is crucial for caregivers and healthcare professionals to effectively manage and stimulate appetite in the elderly.

I’ve been a Registered Dietitian for over 10 years working with the elderly, so I’ve dealt with my fair share of elderly patients not eating.  I want to give you my top tips for how to help this.

Age-related alterations in taste and smell can significantly diminish the desire to eat. As people age, their sense of taste, especially for sweet and salty foods, often declines. This can make meals less appealing, leading to reduced food intake. 

To counteract this, enhancing the flavor of foods with herbs, spices, or mild sweeteners can be beneficial. For instance, adding cinnamon to oatmeal or using fresh herbs in soups can make them more appetizing to elderly taste buds.

Psychological factors like depression and dementia also play a critical role in appetite loss. Depression can reduce appetite and interest in food, while dementia can lead to forgetfulness about eating or difficulty in recognizing hunger cues. It’s important to address these underlying conditions through appropriate medical and psychological interventions.

top 15 tips for what to do when elderly won't eat, a beautiful table setting with many foods spread across a brown table, and assorted colours.

Common Causes of Appetite Loss in the Elderly

The decline in appetite among the elderly is influenced by a combination of physiological, medical, and psychological factors. Understanding these causes is key to developing effective strategies for encouraging healthy eating habits in seniors.

If you want to know the top 11 reasons elderly have no appetite and weight loss, check out the article!

Physiologically, aging impacts the body’s sensory systems, particularly taste and smell. These changes can make food less appealing and result in a reduced desire to eat. For instance, a diminished sense of taste can make previously loved foods seem bland. 

Adding natural flavor enhancers or experimenting with different textures can help make meals more appealing. 

Medication side effects are another common cause of reduced appetite in the elderly. Certain drugs can alter taste perception or cause nausea, both of which can lead to a decrease in food intake. Regularly reviewing medications with a healthcare professional to identify and manage these side effects is crucial. I’ve got a free resource here about food and medication interactions.

Psychological factors like depression can also significantly impact appetite. Depression in the elderly is often underdiagnosed and can lead to a lack of interest in eating. Tackling this requires a holistic approach, including medical intervention and emotional support. You can find a full education webinar I filmed on depression and nutrition in the elderly here.

These sources offer a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to appetite loss in the elderly and can guide caregivers and healthcare professionals in addressing this issue effectively.

What to Do When Elderly Won’t Eat

Figuring out what to do when elderly won’t eat requires a multifaceted approach, incorporating both home-based strategies and professional healthcare interventions.

Here’s my summary of the top 15 tips on what to do!

  • Identify the Underlying Cause: Investigate if there are emotional issues like depression or loneliness, or physical problems such as dental issues, gastrointestinal discomfort, or side effects from medications that might be causing the loss of appetite. Understanding these factors is essential for tailoring your approach to their specific needs.
  • Serve Smaller Portions: Large meals can be overwhelming for the elderly, leading to a reduced appetite. Offering smaller portions can make eating less daunting and more manageable, encouraging them to eat without feeling pressured.
  • Enhance Mealtime Atmosphere: A pleasant and engaging dining environment can stimulate the appetite. This can be achieved by using brightly coloured plates, playing soft background music, or engaging in light, enjoyable conversation during meals to create a more inviting atmosphere.
  • Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods: When the elderly eat less, it’s crucial that what they do eat is packed with nutrients. Incorporate foods high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Options like lean meats, whole grains, and fortified drinks can provide essential nutrients in smaller servings.
  • Offer Softer, Easy-to-Eat Foods: Dental problems or difficulty chewing and swallowing can make eating a challenge. Providing softer food options such as mashed vegetables, ground meats, and smoothies can make eating easier and more enjoyable for them.
  • Cater to Their Preferences: Pay attention to their food preferences and aversions. Offering their favourite foods can make meals more appealing and can be a comforting reminder of familiar tastes and experiences.
  • Avoid Food-Related Arguments: It’s important to keep mealtime as stress-free as possible. Avoid turning eating into a battleground. Instead, encourage them gently and respect their choices, even if they eat very little.
  • Encourage Physical Activity: Light physical activities can stimulate appetite and improve overall health. Encourage simple exercises like walking or stretching, tailored to their ability level, to help increase their hunger.
  • Regular Health Checkups: Regular medical and dental checkups can help identify and address any health issues that might be affecting their appetite. This includes reviewing medications that might have side effects impacting their desire to eat.
  • Mealtime Companionship: Eating with others can make meals more enjoyable and less isolating. Whether it’s a family member, friend, or caregiver, having company can encourage them to eat more and make mealtime a pleasant social occasion.
  • Use Adaptive Eating Utensils: For those with limited mobility or conditions like arthritis, adaptive utensils with easy-to-grip handles can make eating less physically challenging and more comfortable.
  • Monitor for Signs of Malnutrition: Be vigilant for signs of malnutrition, such as unexpected weight loss, fatigue, or mood changes. Early detection is key to addressing these issues promptly and effectively.
  • Consult Healthcare Professionals: If concerns about eating persist, consulting with healthcare professionals like doctors or dietitians can provide specialised guidance and strategies tailored to their specific health needs.
  • Meal Delivery Services: Utilising meal delivery services can be a convenient way to ensure they receive varied, nutritious, and easy-to-prepare meals, especially beneficial for those who may find cooking difficult.
  • Promote Hydration: Proper hydration is crucial for overall health and can influence appetite. Encourage regular intake of water and other healthy fluids to ensure they stay well-hydrated.

For a few of these I want to expand further to give you a little more details on ways you can get an elderly person to eat.

Role of Routine and Environment

Establishing a consistent routine and a pleasant eating environment is essential in managing appetite issues in the elderly. These factors play a significant role in encouraging regular food intake.

A consistent meal and snack schedule helps regulate the body’s hunger signals, making seniors more likely to eat. Predictability in meal times can be comforting and can help to establish a rhythm for daily food intake. 

Creating a positive mealtime environment is also vital. Eating should be a social and enjoyable experience. For seniors, particularly those who live alone, mealtime can become a lonely activity, which may decrease their interest in eating. Encouraging family meals or arranging for companionship during meal times can significantly improve their eating habits.

Both routine and environment are key elements in addressing appetite issues in elderly individuals. By focusing on these aspects, caregivers can help create a more inviting and effective eating experience for their loved ones.

Practical Tips for Caregivers

For caregivers, there are practical strategies to enhance food intake among the elderly. These tips focus on meal preparation, food choice, and feeding techniques.

Serving smaller, frequent meals can be more manageable for seniors, especially for those with reduced appetite or digestive issues. These meals should be nutrient-rich, focusing on high-calorie and high-protein foods to meet their dietary needs in smaller portions. The Mayo Clinic provides helpful guidance on preparing nutrient-dense meals for seniors: Nutrition for Seniors.

Adapting to physical limitations is also crucial. For seniors with dexterity problems or dental issues, providing easy-to-eat foods like finger foods or soft diets can make eating less challenging and more enjoyable. Ideas for suitable finger foods and soft diets can be found at this link.

Ensuring these measures are in place can significantly impact the eating habits of the elderly, making mealtime both enjoyable and nutritionally adequate.

Addressing Underlying Health Issues

Tackling underlying health conditions is fundamental in managing appetite issues in elderly individuals. This often involves a collaborative approach with healthcare providers.

Regular health check-ups are crucial to identify and address any medical conditions that may be affecting appetite. Conditions like gastrointestinal issues, dental problems, or chronic illnesses can significantly impact a senior’s ability to eat and enjoy food. 

Adjusting medications is another key step. Some medications can suppress appetite or cause gastrointestinal discomfort, leading to decreased food intake. Working closely with a healthcare provider to review and possibly adjust medications can help mitigate these effects. 

Depression is a significant factor that can affect eating habits in the elderly. It is important to recognize and treat depression to improve overall well-being, which in turn can enhance appetite. Mental health resources like those provided by the National Institute on Aging can be helpful: Depression and Older Adults.

Addressing these health issues through a combination of medical intervention and lifestyle adjustments can greatly improve the appetite and nutritional status of elderly individuals.

Final Thoughts

Appetite loss in seniors is influenced by a blend of physical, psychological, and environmental factors. Recognizing and addressing these diverse elements is key to fostering healthy eating habits.

Caregivers, healthcare professionals, and family members play pivotal roles in this process. Their support, understanding, and patience are instrumental in creating a nurturing environment that promotes regular and nutritious eating. It’s essential to delve into the root causes of appetite loss, be it changes in taste and smell, medication side effects, or psychological conditions like depression.

Regular health assessments are vital in identifying and tackling any underlying medical issues. Adjusting diets to include nutrient-dense, easy-to-eat foods, and ensuring a pleasant dining atmosphere can significantly boost food intake. Moreover, staying informed about the latest strategies and being adaptable in caregiving approaches can greatly enhance the quality of life for elderly individuals struggling with appetite loss.

While the journey to improve eating habits in the elderly may be filled with challenges, a thoughtful, informed, and compassionate approach can lead to meaningful improvements in their nutritional health and overall well-being.

Do you have someone who is struggling to eat?  Drop your questions in the comments, I’d love to help.

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Michelle Saari is a Registered Dietitian based in Canada. She has a Master's Degree in Human Nutritional Sciences and is a passionate advocate for spreading easy to understand, reliable, and trustworthy nutrition information. She is currently a full time online entrepreneur with two nutrition focused websites.

2 thoughts on “What To Do When Elderly Won’t Eat”

  1. I’m a the caregiver for my husband who has Parkinsons. He has experienced weightloss and cognitive issues, along with losing inches in his height. He sees his primary doctor regularly. He limits his drinking because of an overactive bladder. He has been told that staying hydrated will enhance so many issues he is experiencing, including appetite and cognitive issues. So I try to monitor everything to enhance his chances a better quality if life and less decline. Would seeing another specialist be a help? Perhaps the would be able to guide us. What type of specialist would you suggest?
    Thank you

    1. Hi Marla,

      Thanks for the question! Staying well hydrated is very important as you’ve heard for increasing appetite and cognition. If he doesn’t like going to the bathroom so much, which is a common reason people slow down their drinking, he can certainly still get hydration from foods and other drinks like smoothies. This sometimes helps to slow down the amount of times he may have to go to the bathroom. I would ask his Doctor if he has a recommendation for a Registered Dietitian that specializes in Parkinson’s or Geriatrics depending on his age. Working with a Dietitian that has specialty in this area can be very beneficial! I may also be able to help you find someone in your area, if you’re comfortable please send me an e-mail at longtermcarerd@gmail.com and I will try my best to put you in touch with a Dietitian that works in this area.

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