How To Detect Undernourishment In Seniors

how to detect undernourishment in seniors

It may be difficult to imagine that the parent who consistently put food on the family table each and every night, and who insisted you eat all of your peas and carrots, is now malnourished herself. Sadly, that’s the case for many seniors who lack the energy, strength, or mental ability to properly plan, shop for, and prepare nourishing meals.  

Senior Health Risks Increase With Poor Nutritional Intake 

A recent post in the Journal of Clinical Medicine states, “Malnutrition is reported in up to 50% of older adults, although prevalence estimates vary substantially…and represent a major geriatric syndrome with multifactorial etiology and severe consequences for health outcomes and quality of life.” In other words, in addition to being a more widespread threat than you might realize, malnutrition results in a wide range of physical and mental side effects that compromise overall health and a senior’s ability to enjoy life to its fullest. 

Some of the most common health issues related to poor nutrition include: 

  • A weakened immune system, making seniors more vulnerable to contagions and can exacerbate existing health conditions 
  • Diminished wound healing, of particular concern to seniors with diabetes 
  • Increased risk of hospitalization 
  • Higher fall risk, which leads to more invasive medical treatment(s) 
  • Mental decline that can replicate dementia or accelerate/exacerbate existing dementia 
  • Elevated mortality rate  

Common Signs Of Undernourishment In Seniors  

Here are some of the most common symptoms or signs that a senior may be undernourished: 

Decrease in food intake 

There are multiple reasons seniors may decrease their daily food intake. This includes diminished smell and taste, lack of energy to prepare tasty foods, medications that alter the taste of foods and/or suppress the appetite, or memory issues that cause seniors to forget (skip) meals altogether.  

Poor oral hygiene leading to sore teeth/gums, missing teeth, or poorly fitted dentures also diminishes a senior’s interest and/or ability to eat. This is one of the reasons why oral hygiene should be a high priority for seniors. 

Weight loss 

Weight loss is a natural result of undernourishment in seniors. If you don’t live with or near a senior loved one, it can be hard to tell whether s/he is eating well. However, over time, you’ll notice a decrease in weight and this should never be ignored. In addition to being a sign of poor nourishment, weight loss is one of the major red flags indicating seniors need support to remain safely and independently in their own homes. 

They seem lonely and/or depressed 

Loneliness and depression are common in the senior population. The combination of age-related decline, limited mobility or driving privileges, the loss of a spouse and one’s peers over time, or having to downsize or relocate put seniors at risk for the blues or bonafide depression. For many, this also results in a lack of appetite, or the tendency to gravitate towards salty, fatty, or sugary foods rather than the healthy and nourishing foods the body needs. 

More frequent bruising or illness 

Seniors who aren’t getting their adequate doses of daily vitamins and minerals are more prone to bruising. They also may get sick more often than normal or may comment about more intense side effects of existing health conditions – all a sign of immunosuppression that accompanies poor nutrition. 

Forgetful or more extreme dementia episodes 

Nutrition is key to mental health, and that includes cognitive (memory) function. Seniors who are not eating well can become more forgetful than normal – scaring themselves and others into thinking they have dementia (FYI: UTIs also lead to dementia-like symptoms. Click Here to read more about that). Poor nutrition also exacerbates and can accelerate the side effects of existing dementia. 

Fatigue and/or increased sleeping habits 

Not surprisingly, those who aren’t eating as they should are more likely to feel lethargic and sleepy. They may even start to nap more or sleep longer at night. Lack of energy and extra sleepiness are also signs of depression and/or maybe a sign that medications need to be re-evaluated by their healthcare professional(s). 

Additional signs of undernourishment in seniors are: 

  • Unusual irritability 
  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Feeling cold more frequently 
  • Longer time required to recover from illnesses or for wounds to heal 

Any of the above signs and symptoms should be noted and reported to your senior loved one’s physician. It may be time to put a more solid nutrition plan into place. 

Tips For Preventing Or Amending Poor Nutrition 

There are several things you can do to prevent or amend undernourishment in seniors: 

  • Implement a weekly weigh-in. Have seniors or their caregivers track weight on a weekly basis for a more accurate record of weight fluctuations. This will also come in handy when you need to schedule a visit with a physician because it provides quantifiable evidence for the staff to analyze. 
  • Observe their eating habits. If you’re nearby, schedule more frequent visits around mealtimes and sit with the senior while s/he eats, noticing what is eaten and what isn’t. This can provide important clues. Is it loneliness that leads to skipped meals? Are there difficulties chewing or swallowing? Have their tastes altered (adjustments in certain medications and altering spice levels can help with that)? Are they unable or uninterested in preparing meals? Consider implementing a meal delivery service or working with an in-home care agency so seniors have an ample supply of easy, delicious, and nutritious meals and snacks on-hand. 
  • Make healthy and tasty meals readily available. From meal services such as Meals-on-Wheels (available from most community senior centers) to caregivers who can grocery shop, meal plan, and cook meals for seniors, there are ample ways to ensure seniors have access to delicious and nutritious meals. Click Here to read about anti-inflammatory diets and how they support senior health and wellbeing.  
  • Keep seniors socially engaged. Social engagement boosts energy levels, enhances mental wellbeing, and can help to increase senior’s appetites – especially if they’re gathering together for meals. If transportation is an issue, reach out to local home care providers to discuss how companion and driving services can support your loved one’s social activity and appetite. 

We Can Help You And/Or Your Loved One

HomeAide Home Care is a licensed, Bay Area home care agency. Contact us if you are concerned your senior loved one is suffering from undernourishment or may need more mealtime support. The loving attention from a caregiver, combined with easy-to-heat or eat meals and snacks can notably improve a seniors physical, mental, and emotional health.

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