It can be frightening and frustrating but there are ways to stimulate hunger if your parent is not eating. It's all about the carrot, not the stick!
What to do if your parent is not eatingHas your Mum or Dad lost their appetite? Are they losing weight because they’re simply not getting the fuel and nutrition their body needs? We all need food for energy, to repair cells and keep our bodies functioning properly. Sometimes as we get older, disease, debility or dementia can suppress the appetite and put us off our food. If your parent is eating less, try not to panic, the calorific need decreases with age and there’s lots you can do to tempt their taste-buds.
Spice it upAs we get older our senses can become dulled, so that our ability to smell and taste food diminishes. We rely on delicious aromas and flavours to stimulate our appetite and savour our food, if everything tastes like bland mush there’s little incentive to eat up. If you're the head chef and caregiver try to tweak your recipes; choose stronger flavours and experiment with herbs and spices to provide a little more piquancy and punch.
A visual feastImpaired vision due to cataracts, diabetes, eye disease or just an out of date glasses prescription can mean that a plate of food can look like a dull, amorphous blob. You can make their meals more visually appealing by increasing the colours of food on the plate and separating them into sections so that there is clear definition. Picking brightly coloured veggies, crisp salads and vibrant toppings or sauces arranged on plain white crockery can make a meal pop off the plate.
Little and oftenIf your parent isn’t hungry and has become accustomed to eating less, their stomach tends to adapt so they can’t take large meals and feel full sooner. Instead of over-facing them with huge platefuls, offer small calorie rich meals and frequent snacks throughout the day.
Dental checksOften sore teeth and gums, or ill-fitting dentures can make it tricky to chew food. If your parent seems to be suffering, arrange a check-up with their dentist. While you’re waiting, offer softer foods. Canned and cooked fruit and vegetables, purees and soups, stews, scrambled eggs, yoghurt and ice-cream can all help provide the balanced diet they need without having to crunch and chew.
Control constipationDecreased mobility, medication or drinking insufficient fluids can make the digestion sluggish and leave your parent constipated. Constipation can be horribly uncomfortable, causing cramp-like pains and the sensation that there is no room for any more food. You can help prevent constipation by offering water regularly, upping their intake of dietary fibre and checking their medication with their doctor. Painkillers containing codeine can often leave patients bunged up, so see if there’s an alternative or consider a regular stool softener or laxative.
Maybe your parent is struggling to cook food, perhaps they can’t get out to the shops, it might be too painful or exhausting to walk to the kitchen or arthritis might be making it tricky to hold their cutlery.
Talk to them about how they're managing around the house, think about a social services care assessment to explore their individual needs; meals on wheels, a day centre or a carer coming into the home could help provide the support and the food they need.
Social stimulationIt can be miserable to always dine alone. Eating with others is enjoyable and can stimulate the appetite. Encourage your parent to share a meal with others whenever possible; this could be Sunday lunch with the family, a regular visit to the day centre, breakfast at a local café or a sandwich after the service at a church or other religious group. Try to get the whole family on board and focus on the fun and chat of a shared experience, rather than forcing your parent to swallow mouthful after mouthful.
Deal with depressionDepression doesn’t just lower the mood; it can also profoundly affect the appetite.
If your parent is feeling down, they may not feel hungry and they may also find it difficult to muster the motivation and energy to prepare and eat a meal.
Impaired mobility, disease, social isolation and the loss of a loved one can all trigger depression in the elderly. See if your parent will share their feelings with you or talk to their doctor about treatment to help lift their mood.