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Elderly Junk Food Junkies: What to do When Your Mom Won’t Eat Well

“So, you got any?”  Leaning in conspiratorially, the lady approaches our maintenance director to ask for the coveted item:  Famous Amos Cookies.

“I only have about 7 bags.  That’s all the vending machine will hold.” He replies with the shame of a supplier who has run short.

“Is that all??” She asks incredulously.  “Well, all I have is a $20.  Can you help me get them?”  He follows her to the machine and assists her to clean out the entire row of her favorite treat.

I love the nerve of an elderly person.  Imagine the social shaming that would accompany a 40-something like me who stands in front of a vending machine, buying bag after bag until all of the Famous Amos cookies are in her hands.  But an elderly lady doesn’t care.  She wants what she wants and she knows how to get it.

As we age, our taste buds lose sensitivity and our food just doesn’t taste the same.  Often elderly people fixate on sweets because the ability to taste sweet usually remains intact.  Medication side effects, dry mouth, and fading sense of smell can also contribute to the inability to taste food.  Add to this the dietary restrictions that many elderly people are under, and you have a recipe for disaster when it comes to nutrition.

So what can you do to help your loved one eat better?

  • Serve good looking food.  A lovely plate might tempt your mom to try to eat even if her sense of smell and taste are impaired.  Even puréed food can be plated creatively or shaped in an appealing way.  Enlist the eyes in contributing to the brain’s positive signals about food.
  • Try new foods. My dad, an old country boy, developed a love for the Dorito tacos at Taco Bell.  Those weren’t usually in his repertoire of favorite foods and I remember being surprised he liked them so much.  Not that I recommend fast food as top notch nutrition, but sometimes trying something different could produce a new and surprising option for meals.
  • Find a favorite place and person. My grandmother loved eating at a certain restaurant.  She went there once a week, and it was an event we all loved to attend since she often brought one or more of her children or grandchildren with her.  Granny had her favorite waitress, ordered something not even on the menu, and enjoyed a dessert every single time.  The outing, the atmosphere, and the company made the meal something Granny anticipated and she usually ate enthusiastically.
  • Create cravings. Reminisce about favorite dishes, good memories around food, and mom’s best recipes.  Talk about how delicious the food and how wonderful the memories.  Sometimes we forget how much we like certain foods until a memory triggers us to go after that taste.
  • Avoid overwhelming amounts of food. Many of our elderly loved ones do not deign to waste food.  Pair the compulsion to clean the plate with the loss of appetite or taste, and a plate full of food can be a big negative.  Try what we call a “birdie plate,” which is a plate with small portions and plenty of empty space.  Small portions look more “doable” to someone who knows she needs to eat but can’t get her appetite going.

Whether it’s Famous Amos cookies or kale salads, we all have our favorites and all want to enjoy eating as one of life’s pleasures.  For our older loved ones, nutrition is as vital as ever to healing wounds, keeping muscle strength up, and helping maintain good energy.  One of the most satisfying parts of what we do in assisted living is the improvement we see when residents start eating well.  We wish you and your loved one good eating.  Unless it’s Famous Amos you want.  In that case, we’re sold out!

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