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As we age, our nutritional needs change, meaning that a diet that was appropriate in our younger years may no longer provide us with the essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients to support our changing bodies.
Advancing age usually brings a general slowing down of activity, as lean muscle gradually gives way to increased body fat, which causes the base metabolic rate to become lowered. In effect, this means that an older person requires less food than a younger person, but that doesn’t mean compromising on quality.
In fact, older people need to pay close attention to their dietary habits, to ensure that they are eating nutritious and healthy meals that provide their bodies with the correct amount of nutrients.
Are dietary supplements necessary?
An elderly person who continues to enjoy the same diet as they did in their younger years may not be receiving all of the necessary nutrients to ensure that their bodies are running at maximum efficiency.
Any diet heavy in sugar and processed or heavily refined foods will provide less nutrition than one that is packed with fruit, vegetables, protein and good-quality fats. It’s never too late to change to a better diet, so don’t assume that an older person has to be set in their ways.
Everyone can benefit from a healthy eating plan, so encourage your elderly loved one to eat sensibly, by making small but significant changes over a period of time, such as by slowly increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in their diet. These don’t have to be fresh – frozen and canned foods are better than nothing and will help towards a healthier way of life.
However, older people have some specific nutritional requirements that they may struggle to achieve through food intake alone. Supplements can be a helpful way of ensuring they get adequate vitamins and minerals, but it’s always wise to seek medical approval before introducing supplements, particularly if your loved one is taking medication, as some supplements and vitamins can react with medicines in undesirable ways, especially if taken in large quantities.
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Vitamin D can be found in a range of foods, such as eggs, fish, meat and fortified cereals. Vitamin D is vital for ensuring strong bones, which is particularly important for older people, who can be prone to osteoporosis, weak bones and limited mobility, making them more liable to break in the event of a fall.
Huge numbers of elderly people in the UK are deficient in Vitamin D, thanks to a lack of sunlight and a diet deficient in this vital nutrient. Discuss with your loved one’s GP whether a supplement might be beneficial.
Omega-3 is a fatty acid found in oily fish, in particular, and it is known to protect the heart. Research suggests that it may help in alleviating symptoms of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, as well as preventing memory loss, and it is known to improve a person’s immune function. Encourage your loved one to eat oily fish up to four times a week, or if they dislike fish, it may be worth investing in a supplement.
Older people require fewer calories than when they were younger, but they benefit from an increase in the protein content of their diet. Good quality protein provides extra B vitamins, folic acid and iron, which many older people are deficient in, but these are essential nutrients for ensuring good health.
Encourage your elderly loved one to eat plenty of lean meat, along with fish and dairy products. If your loved one dislikes dairy or is a vegan, a diet with plenty of tofu, pulses and beans will ensure that they receive plenty of protein, along with essential vitamins, in their diet.
Encouraging a healthy weight
An elderly person who is underweight will be experiencing a shortfall in the nutrients necessary to ensure good health. Many older people neglect their diets, either through a lack of motivation or for those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, because they forget to eat altogether. Also, reduced mobility can lead to a loss of appetite.
If you decide to arrange elderly care at home for a family member, high-quality live-in care agencies will ensure the carer provided understands the medical needs of your loved one. The caregiver will ensure they add fortified milk to soups, sauces and stews, as this will boost their nutrient intake. Fortified milk is made by simply adding up to four tablespoons of dried milk powder to full cream milk.
Your elderly loved one may be receiving dementia care or companion care, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t still enjoy tasty and nutritious meals. Speak to their carer to discuss meal plans, and encourage them to create exciting and healthy meals that your elderly relative will enjoy eating.
Perhaps your loved one is experiencing a decline in their sense of taste or smell, which can be a symptom of some illnesses, such as Parkinson’s disease, for example. In cases such as these, adding extra herbs and spices to a meal can help to make it more palatable, encouraging your loved one to eat more substantial meal portions, if this is something that they struggle with.