Among the myriad health issues older adults may face, it can be easy to overlook the role of nutrition. However, poor nutrition is often the cause or one of the factors in hospitalizations. At the same time, it is one of the areas we can most easily address. So, it is a highly preventable risk.
In some studies, up to a third of older patients seen in the Emergency Department were malnourished. Elders with poor nutrition:
- Have poorer quality of life scores.
- Show less functional ability.
- Are more frail.
- Prove more likely to be hospitalized or have a recent fall.
And, it isn’t just a one-time problem. Without proper interventions, this becomes a chronic problem. At 30 days post-hospitalization, those with poor nutrition were more likely to have reported another hospital admission, a nursing home admission, reduced quality of life and functional decline.
Why is poor nutrition so likely to lead to the hospital?
- A weakened immune system, which increases the risk of infections
- Poor wound healing
- Muscle weakness and decreased bone mass, which can lead to falls and fractures
- Increased side effects from medications
- Worsening of certain conditions that require specific dietary support
Why is poor nutrition such a problem for many older adults?
Normal age-related changes
Taste, smell and appetite generally decline with age. Thus, it becomes more difficult to enjoy eating and maintain regular eating habits. Vision problems may lead to fear of cooking. They can also make it hard to read labels and recipes and generally make preparation difficult. The senses of taste and smell start to decline in our 50s. Many foods tend to taste bitter. And, subtle smelling foods may taste bland. Therefore, individuals may increase intake of sugar and salt to compensate.
Disease-related inflammation and illnesses can contribute to appetite decline. They can also affect how the body processes nutrients.
Difficulty chewing or swallowing and poor dental health make it challenging to eat a range of foods. Some elders lose the dexterity to use tableware or handle cooking tasks.
Memory problems can lead to forgetting to eat (or overeating), inability to follow the steps for meal preparation and more. It may be difficult to remember to buy groceries and plan meals. Some people with dementia experience sleep and schedule disturbances. This can make it hard to maintain a meal schedule.
Various medications can affect appetite and nutrient absorption. Some medications may also need to be taken with food, with liquid, on an empty stomach, etc. Sometimes elders have difficulty following these instructions, especially when taking multiple meds.
Some medical conditions can best be managed with lifestyle changes such as diet. Especially when this is new to the person, they may find it difficult to know how to eat for their restricted diet.
If you’re taking expensive medications and/or on a fixed income, nutrient-rich foods can seem too expensive. We shared some tips for healthy senior nutrition on a budget here.
Reduced social contact
A study in the UK revealed almost a million older adults skipping meals or relying on ready-made meals due to the loneliness they felt eating alone. Other studies have found that people of all ages who eat alone are at higher risk for health problems. Elders are more likely to suffer from loneliness, which can make preparing meals and eating less enjoyable.
Limited access to food
If you can’t drive or have limited mobility, you may find it difficult to get the food you need. Fortunately, we have a lot more solutions for this today.
Grief, loneliness, failing health, lack of mobility, and loss might contribute to depression. Lack of appetite or interest in eating are common effects of depression. Some people with depression also overeat or turn to unhealthy, “comfort” foods.
Overuse of alcohol can interfere with the digestion and absorption of nutrients. It can also result in poor eating habits.
Solutions for Poor Nutrition: Preventing Hospitalizations and More
A study last year found that patients who received medically tailored meals experienced 50% fewer hospitalizations and 72% fewer skilled nursing facility admissions. Overall, the program was associated with a 16% reduction in health-care costs.
Patients with chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease may require a diet low in sugar, fat, sodium or cholesterol. Post-discharge meals are vitally important to individuals who simply cannot prepare meals for themselves or whose caretakers don’t know how to fulfill their nutritional needs. Some elders are already food insecure, but truly suffer the consequences of this when trying to recuperate.
As that study and others have shown, having proper, tailored nutrition is essential. EasyLiving’s Care Partners can help in the home with:
What’s for dinner?: Your caregiver can plan healthy meals or prepare meals ahead of time. You can also help prepare a shopping list or shop together. They can offer money-saving shopping choices and help you find tasty, healthy options.
Make meals social events: Being there during mealtime or going to a restaurant together can provide companionship to encourage healthy eating and increase intake.
Since we know nutrition goes beyond the food, they can also help:
Monitor weight: Help check and keep track of your weight at home. Report to health providers, especially when there are significant changes. For some conditions, such as Congestive Heart Failure, this is absolutely essential in spotting signs of an impending crisis.
Observe habits: Spend meal times together to see what kinds of food you like to eat, how much you’re eating, and any issues.
Monitor medications: Keep a record of your medications, the reason for each medication, dosages, treatment schedules and possible side effects. Help track that you’re taking medications properly and any problems.
Encourage regular physical activity: Even light daily exercise can stimulate appetite and strengthen bones and muscles. It is also great for preventing falls!
Our care managers create a plan and coordinate to ensure your health and wellbeing. Some of the ways they help with poor nutrition include:
- Regularly monitoring weight and screening for malnutrition
- Assessing for medical conditions that may be affecting weight loss or nutritional health
- Helping you identify and get treatment for underlying conditions causing malnutrition
- Coordinating the right diet for diabetes or other medical conditions; providing patient, family, and care partner education
- Making sure you and your care providers have information such as: appropriate daily calorie intake (and how to monitor), healthy food choices, and recommended vitamin and mineral supplements
- Reviewing medications (and supplements) and working with your providers to change medications or schedules as needed
- Managing and coordinating grocery shopping and delivery services
Want to stay safe at home and avoid unnecessary hospital visits?
Let’s chat about your situation and how we can help with nutritional and other in-home support services.