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Published April 20, 2013, 11:35 PM

Minding Our Elders: Elderly mom losing appetite and weight

DEAR CAROL: I’m worried about my mom. She’s 89-years old and has very little appetite. At one time she was quite heavy and ate as much as my dad, but now she says just looking at food fills her up.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: I’m worried about my mom. She’s 89-years old and has very little appetite. At one time she was quite heavy and ate as much as my dad, but now she says just looking at food fills her up. She’s in a good nursing home and she goes to their dining room for three meals a day. They also offer snacks between meals. She’ll sometimes eat the snacks, but she just picks at her main meals. Granted, the meals are rather institutional, but they try to present them well and the atmosphere is friendly. The nurses hate seeing Mom lose weight, too, and they all encourage her to eat. Her health problems don’t explain this loss of appetite. What more can we do? Robin

DEAR ROBIN: I definitely can relate to your worry. My mom had problems eating during her last years, too. Because of frequent falls from severe arthritis and other significant health problems, Mom lived in a nearby nursing home where the care was excellent. I visited nearly every day, and kept a cooler in her room so she could have some favorite foods at hand. As her appetite diminished, cool foods generally went down easier than hot meals, and fresh fruit was a favorite.

I remember well that she complained about the “enormous” amounts of food the residents were served. When people with poor appetites are served large plates of food, they are sometimes overwhelmed. Simply seeing and smelling the food seems to send their brain the signal that they are full.

Mom’s experience in the nursing home came just before some major changes in food management at that particular facility. Now, instead of three large meals a day with snacks in between, people have choices between five different types of meals ranging from hearty food for big appetites to smaller meals for others. Residents also have choices about when they eat.

It sounds like the nursing home your mom lives in hasn’t yet changed to the newer diet philosophy. Ask the dietician at the facility if there is a way to tailor your mom’s meals to her appetite. If that doesn’t help, you could have a talk with the administrator. Since nursing homes must take into account all kinds of special dietary needs for their residents, I would think that they could experiment with your mom and see if small, light meals will encourage her to eat more. If needed, her doctor may be able to prescribe this type of diet.

People suffer so many losses as they age, it only seems right that they should be able to choose what they prefer when possible. Food is symbolic as well as a means to take in nutrition. Meals can be presented so people have some control over their lives. The individualized attention they receive as they plan their meals with the nursing home staff also has value. It’s a way to help the elder feel validated as an individual. Good luck.

This article is written exclusively for The Forum. Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

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