It’s dinnertime! So often a great, relaxing time at the end of the day, but sometimes it can be a time to dread, walking in the door from a busy day and facing “what’s for dinner?”
It’s difficult to plan, buy groceries and have the energy to get dinner on the table at night. Of course, we haven’t even mentioned cleanup! Any of you who have followed things I’ve written know I’m really not all that into cooking, and I’m really not all that into going to the grocery store. But you know what I think is even worse — eating alone. When there’s no one with you for a meal, it’s hard to remember even what you ate, and usually when this happens, it’s not the healthiest meal you’ve ever consumed.
Do you also realize that approximately 40 percent of the population age 75 and older (6.7 million people) live alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau? That means that many people are thinking about what’s for dinner, grocery shopping and then eating alone day after day. Do you know what’s on the menu at your mom or dad’s house? If a loved one is home alone, chances are he or she might not be eating a healthy meal at all.
Seniors may need help planning and preparing nutritious meals. But that’s only part of the story. So many older adults want to relive a time around the dinner table when they are sharing their lives with the people they love most. Seniors who live alone want good-tasting, nutritious food and stimulating conversation. They want to share home-cooked meals with family and friends.
According to research, lack of companionship is the biggest mealtime challenge for seniors. Families need help to support older adults who live alone. Family caregivers need tips and practical advice to encourage companionship and easy healthy meals.
First of all, let’s look for some warning signs. Two of five seniors who live alone have at least four warning signs of poor nutritional health. Here are some indicators that a senior who lives alone could be in trouble.
1. The loneliness. Who wants to eat alone? Not only are seniors at more risk of poor nutrition, loneliness can lead to depression, which could make problems worse. More than three-fourths of seniors who live alone eat alone most of the time. Suggestions: Try to make sure your older loved one has companionship at home or in a congregate meal site.
2. The multiple medications. Nearly three-fourths of seniors take three or more different medications a day, according to research. Suggestions: Talk to your senior’s health care team about how medications might be impacting your older adult’s appetite and discuss with them what to do about it.
3. The lack of health staples. For a number of reasons, important staples for a good diet are not always found in a senior’s kitchen. Nearly half of seniors who live alone consume few fruits, vegetables or milk products. Suggestions: In season, why not find an affordable, local farmer’s market. Talk with your older loved one about their favorite recipes, or yours that incorporate healthy products.
4. The illness. Many older adults are struggling with health conditions. Some don’t feel like eating as a result. Others say that an illness or condition has forced them to change the food they eat. Suggestion: Discovering favorite recipes from the recipe box and making mealtime a social event may help.
5. The physical problems. A fourth of seniors who live alone can’t always get to the grocery store any more, nor can they shop or cook for themselves. Suggestion: Your local area agency on aging office has staff to help or look for agencies that provide professional caregivers. Try, also, to tap into neighbors and compassionate friends. If you know of older adults who live alone, cook extra at mealtimes and take it to them.
6. That smelly refrigerator. Check out expiration dates of food in the refrigerator when you’re visiting a loved one. Have you noticed an increase in spoiled food? Remember to check the freezer for outdated frozen items or foods that have not been packaged appropriately. Suggestion: Help a senior by packaging food in small portions and labeling in big letters with the date.
7. The suspicious grocery list. If you go to the store for Mom, and the list is mostly sweets, then she may be headed in the wrong direction with her diet. Suggestion: Help her put together a grocery list, reminding her of all the wonderful foods she used to cook for you. Make it a happy tine of memories. Why not buy the ingredients and make the recipe together.
8. Those important details. When you’re visiting a senior, check out things like skin tone, it should be healthy looking and well-hydrated, as well as any weight fluctuations. A loss or gain of 10 pounds in six months could be a sign of trouble. Suggestions: A visit to the doctor can help ensure your senior is healthy.
9. The empty cupboard. An emergency could trap a loved one home for days. Suggestion: Prepare by stocking back-up food, water and high-nutrition products such as Ensure in case a trip to the store isn’t possible.
10. The support. Isolation is one of the biggest threats to an older adult. Suggestion: If you can’t be there, develop a schedule of friends and neighbors who can stop by for lunch or dinner. Or call local agencies that enlist the services of a professional caregiver.
Of all the challenges, loneliness could be the most daunting. We know from experience families often lack the time to help their aging parents. But 59 percent of seniors say they eat more nutritiously when family and friends are around. They really enjoy having that connection with someone, whether it’s a family caregiver or a professional caregiver.
Please watch for next month’s article for more tips on craving companionship, including some information on table talk and some hints on how to get mealtime conversations going. With a few tips it will be difficult to determine who will benefit the most, the senior or the family member or friend! Find a senior to share a meal with today!
DEB CRANNY is the executive director at Home Instead Senior Care in Brainerd.