The Other Senior Weight Problem

Granddaughter giving grandmother a bite to eat with chopsticks

Grandmother was always proud of her trim figure. But since Grandfather passed away last year, the family is noticing that her clothes all seem too big for her, and she doesn't have much of an appetite. What can they do?

Maintaining a healthy weight as we grow older is a great way to lower the risk of many health problems. Most of us know that carrying too much weight worsens arthritis, heart problems, diabetes and a number of other diseases.

Yet, as the rate of obesity has climbed in the U.S., people are paying less attention to the opposite threat to senior health — being underweight. Despite the old saying, you can be too thin. Losing too much weight in our later years leads to muscle weakness, dizziness, bone loss, a less effective immune system, anemia, bedsores, confusion and an increased risk of falls.

Why do seniors lose weight?

Unintentional weight loss is most often due to obstacles to healthy eating, including:

  • Loss of appetite due to digestive problems, hormone imbalances, memory loss, diminished sense of taste and smell, chronic pain and other health conditions.
  • Oral health problems, such as loose teeth, gum disease or ill-fitting dentures.
  • Swallowing difficulties (dysphagia) caused by nervous system disorders, stroke or reflux disease.
  • Medication side effects.
  • Mobility challenges, tremor, vision loss or cognitive problems that make it hard to shop for groceries, and prepare meals and eat.
  • Loneliness, depression, anxiety or alcohol abuse.
  • Limited financial resources.

What can families do?

Unintended weight loss is a major red flag alerting families that a senior loved one needs more help. The first step is to encourage your loved one to consult the doctor. After evaluating the problem (very likely a combination of causes), the doctor can suggest solutions that might include better management of underlying health problems, a change of medications, consultation with a nutritionist or other specialist, and perhaps nutritional supplements, such as Ensure or Boost.

Next, learn about services in your area, such as Meals on Wheels programs and senior dining centers. Help your loved one stock the kitchen with foods the doctor recommends. And especially if you live at a distance or you have a very busy life, it might be time to hire in-home care to help protect your loved one's health and well-being. Professional in-home caregivers can help your loved one maintain a healthy weight in several important ways:

Caregiver helping client prepare food

Prepare foods and liquids as directed by the doctor. The doctor may recommend that foods be pureed or cut into small pieces, and that liquids be thickened for safer swallowing. Or, it might just be a matter of making meals that your loved one likes, but isn't able to prepare. Seniors often feel full after eating only a small amount, so the caregiver also can provide tempting, nutritious snacks all day. If supplements are recommended, the caregiver can remind your loved one to drink them.

Help monitor your loved one's weight. The caregiver can remind your loved one to weigh in as recommended, and can report any further weight loss.

Take your loved one to the grocery store. If your loved one wants to come along, a trip to the market can be an appetite booster. Just seeing all those food products and participating in the choice can make us hungry! Your loved one can help plan the menu and select from delicious produce and other foods.

Provide supervision to keep your loved one physically active. Even light exercise and activities can stimulate the appetite, and it's one of the best things seniors can do for all-around health. After a walk in the park, working out with weights, or perhaps planting a container garden, your loved one will probably be more interested in eating.

Keep track of healthcare appointments and provide transportation. Monitoring your loved one's weight and underlying health conditions will most likely require a team of healthcare providers, which might include the doctor, nutritionist, dentist, speech-language-swallowing therapist, and perhaps an occupational therapist to help your loved one eat independently. The caregiver can make sure your loved one keeps those appointments. Caregivers also provide medication reminders.

Memory care. People with Alzheimer's disease and related disorders may forget to eat. It may be unsafe for them to prepare meals, and they may try to eat things that aren't food. The caregiver can consult with you to learn your loved one's food preferences, and then provide prompts and assistance as your loved one eats.

Companionship. Some experts say the No. 1 cause of weight loss in older adults is loneliness. Isolation and depression take away their appetite, and as they lose weight, they are even less able to get out and about with others. The caregiver can join your loved one for meals, and provide human companionship all day that lifts your loved one's mood and piques their appetite.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.