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When Should You Suggest Your Older Parent Eat Better?

Pay attention to danger signs and get loved ones the nutrition they need

Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in the Next Avenue “When Should You…” series on aging milestones for parents or loved ones. With our partners at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, we will address common caregiving concerns.

If you are caring for a parent with a chronic, debilitating condition such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease or dementia, you pay close attention to their health and medical needs. You should also keep a close eye on what and how they eat.

Nutritional concerns can arise, too, if your parent has just been discharged from the hospital, has experienced a sudden weight loss, or consistently tells you he or she isn’t hungry.

“In those situations, assume there are diet- and nutrition-related problems,” says Christine Foley, manager of home care at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging.

A note of caution ... Medications can be affected by changes in nutrient intake.

“The older the person is the more significant those problems are probably going to be,” she adds.

Other risk factors include mouth or dental problems that make chewing difficult or painful, living — and eating — alone and living on a fixed income.

Smaller Meals Are Best

There are a few ways you can help your loved ones get the calories they need for energy and the nutrients needed to maintain health and strength. In fact, says Foley, for most seniors, it’s better to eat five or six small meals a day for the following reasons:

  • It helps them if they find it painful to eat large meals because of chest congestion or breathing problems
  • It reduces the highs and lows of insulin levels
  • It encourages more calorie intake for those who have lost their appetites
  • It offers more opportunities to socialize and be with others

Foley also suggests revising and improvising recipes to boost the nutritional impact of foods. The suggested foods below will help increase the nutritional value of your parent’s meals (and yours!). If you’re concerned that your parent will balk at adding quinoa or flax seed to a tried-and-true recipe, consider preparing meals in advance that your parent can simply reheat.

A note of caution when changing your parent’s diet: Medications can be affected by changes in nutrient intake. If you are thinking about helping to boost your parent’s nutritional status with food or any kind of supplements, be sure to run everything by his or her physician first, Foley says.


Carbohydrates get a bad rap — especially for those with diabetes — but they are necessary. Carbs meet energy needs and also provide fiber, vitamins and minerals. The best sources for good carbs are bright-colored and fully-ripened vegetables, deep-colored fruits, cooked whole grains (such as brown rice, oats, barley and quinoa) and nuts.

To boost intake of good carbs, add fresh or frozen vegetables to soups and/or casseroles; add finely ground nuts — walnuts and flax seeds are particularly good — to cooked grains, cereals and sauces and, as a morning or afternoon snack, whip up fruit or vegetable smoothies. Made with milk or yogurt, smoothies increase protein intake, too.


The average person needs two to three ounces of quality protein a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those recovering from illness or surgery need more.

Quality protein includes: lean meats, eggs, beans, nuts, soy products, fish and low-fat dairy products. Eggs and soy products can be added to soups and casseroles. Low-fat cheese can be used in mac-and-cheese or grated into mashed potatoes or onto vegetables. Smoothies will get a major protein boost with the addition of powdered milk. And ground lean meat — no matter the source — is easier to chew.


Another dietary necessity with a bad rap, fats are needed to help in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (such as A, D, E and K) and hormone regulation. Best bets for boosting the intake of healthy and taste-enhancing fats: heart-healthy spreads, clear oils like canola or flax seed oil; fish; nut butters and finely ground nuts and seeds, which can be sprinkled atop casseroles and into soups and cooked cereals.

Vitamins & Minerals

Following the nutrition-boosting tips above also boosts the intake of vitamins, minerals, trace elements, antioxidants, phytochemicals and probiotics, many of which are found in good carbs.


As people age they often lose their ability to “feel” thirst, which means that malnutrition often goes hand-in-hand with dehydration. This can lead to a host of medical and medication-related problems: dry mouth or other oral health problems, fatigue, fainting, falls, urinary tract infections or kidney stones, to name a few.

In addition, many older adults are also dealing with cognitive decline, chronic illnesses or mobility issues that make getting and staying hydrated challenging — especially in hot weather.

This means that older adults need to consciously consume at least five to eight cups of liquids each day to prevent not just dehydration, but also the health problems that can come with it.

“They could drink coffee or tea or soda or juice,” Foley says, “but what the body really wants — and does best on —  is plain old from-the-tap water.”

2 Websites Worth a Look

These websites provide additional information on boosting the nutrition and health  of a loved one:


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