Our bodies become less efficient at absorbing nutrients as we age.
Older people are also more susceptible to digestive disorders, such as constipation. Food choices, therefore, have to adjust to these changes accordingly.
Our taste and smell senses decline after the age of 60, making it difficult to entice an elderly person to eat heartily. This happens as the number of taste buds decreases with age, while the loss of nerve endings affects the ability to smell, said Ms Punithamani Kandasamy, a registered nurse and caregiving trainer at Active Global.
"This, plus the side effects of medication and the inability to chew properly, can impede one's enjoyment of food and lead to a loss in appetite," she added.
Poor nutrition can lead to health issues and weight loss. To counter this, caregivers can put more thought into meals for the elderly.
Consider his medical condition, nutritional deficiencies, physical activity and food preferences.
Making meal-time enjoyable is an important step. "For the elderly person, being unable to eat independently can be frustrating. Taking meals in a loving environment can alleviate this and he will eat better," said Ms Punithamani.
Family bonding during mealtimes also helps to stimulate the senior person's mind, she added. "Having conversations about his favourite foods or sharing memorable culinary experiences esta- blishes a positive emotional asso- ciation with food."
Ms Punithamani gives some tips:
1. Food choices
Prioritise low-calorie foods that are rich in vitamins, iron, calcium, fibre, omega-3 fatty acids and protein. When in doubt, always go for the fresher, less-processed option, to prevent excessive intake of sodium, sugar and preservatives.
Avoid raw, undercooked and non-pasteurised foods, such as rare steak, raw egg, seafood and non-pasteurised cheese and milk.
2. Consider supplements
Some key vitamins and nutrients may be missing from an elderly person's diet if he needs to, for example, avoid certain foods due to allergies or medical reasons.
Off-the-shelf supplements may help to fill the gaps.
3. Don't forget to hydrate
Water is essential and even more so if the person has problems like constipation. You can incorporate fluids into meals by serving soups, stews or smoothies. These are also good for seniors with chewing and swallowing difficulties.
4. Think small
Cut food into bite-sized pieces for easier chewing. Also, serve more frequent, small meals to avoid overloading the digestive system.
5. Go big on flavour
Use fresh herbs, spices and home- made broths to intensify the flavours. If possible, replace table salt with mineral salt, which has less sodium but a stronger taste.
To help the elderly person transition to a new diet plan, try these:
• Establish routines: Besides setting fixed mealtimes, have a simple ritual before food is served. Get him to do light exercises, take a shower or watch TV. These steps give cues that a meal will be served soon.
• Make gradual changes: If the person is used to eating white rice, replace it with brown rice two or three times a week at first. Increase it slowly to five times a week until white rice is eliminated totally.
• Respect his preferences: Avoid serving food he dislikes and see how he prefers to eat his meals. For example, some people like to have dinner while watching television.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.