11.20.2014  |   | Subscribe  | Contact us

All News & Blogs

E-mail Alerts

Get to root of weight loss
Help malnourished elders

View More Images from this story
Visit the Photo Place

Date published: 9/12/2010

ALTHOUGH OBESITY makes more headlines, there are a surprising number of malnourished elderly people in America.

While many older people are fit--some even running marathons in their 80s--others become frail. These frail elders, who may have trouble eating, digesting or accessing food, are vulnerable to malnutrition.

While hospitalized, about 20 percent of elderly people consume less than half of their calorie needs, according to researchers. It's likely that many of those older folks were eating poorly for some time, as some had lost weight even before their hospitalization.

Malnutrition can cause weakness, falls, hip fractures, anemia, skin ulcers and confusion. It also can weaken the immune system.

But before you can fix malnutrition, you have to figure out what caused it. Start by asking your loved one how the weight loss occurred.

The top 10 causes of malnutrition, along with some solutions and resources, are below:


Some elders on a fixed income are forced to choose between food and medicines.

Contact your local agency on aging about free cafeteria- style meals and low-cost meal-delivery programs such as Meals on Wheels, if money is the problem.

These are also great options for folks who have disabilities, weakness or severe arthritis, making it hard to prepare meals.


If an elderly person has stopped driving, getting food can be challenging. Consider taking the person grocery shopping--it can be a fun social event as well as necessary for keeping the person nourished.

Also, many grocery stores deliver, and some pharmacies have mail-order options.


If lost teeth or loose dentures are a problem, consider serving softer foods to your elderly loved one.

For example, instead of dry chicken breast, serve ground chicken sauteed with onions and tomato sauce. Instead of a crunchy salad, consider tender, cooked veggies. Instead of a hard apple, try a banana.

An elderly person who is having trouble chewing should see a dentist. Medicare and other insurance plans cover some dental work.


Some people choke or cough while eating and drinking. If this happens frequently, ask the doctor if a speech-language pathologist would be helpful. These therapists teach exercises to strengthen the throat muscles and aid swallowing.


1  2  Next Page  


If your loved one is underweight, ask your doctor about loosening fat, cholesterol and sodium restrictions. The American Dietetic Association's position paper recommends "liberalized diets" for some frail elderly people in nursing homes.

According to the association, "as many as 65% of [facility] residents experience unintended weight loss and undernutrition."

For some people, malnutrition and weakness are worse threats than fat and salt. But be sure to ask the doctor before making changes.

If the doctor allows, you can boost calories and protein by adding melted cheese to veggies and using real eggs in omelets. Peanut butter is a heart-healthy fat, and a good choice on crackers. Ditch all diet, sugar-free and low-fat foods. Underweight people need extras.

In terminally ill people, appetite loss is normal. There's no need to push food on someone who is dying, because food does not cure terminal illnesses. In this case, the goal is comfort, not weight gain.

--Jennifer Motl

Eldercare Locator: 800/677-1116 or www.eldercare.gov

Rappahannock Area Agency on Aging: raaa16.org, 800/262-4012

Nutritional Health Checklist: available at seniornavigator.com by clicking on "health," then scrolling down and clicking on "nutrition."

Jennifer Motl is a registered dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now lives in Wisconsin.