My aging parent: How to prevent malnutrition

By Peter Fish, MD  |  2/13/2018

Geriatric patients often lose their sense of taste and appetite. As a result, they eat less and don't get enough nutrients.

Caregivers need to understand that loss of appetite and weight is a normal part of aging, and that medical efforts to increase appetite have not been shown to increase a person's length of life, according to the American Geriatrics Society. Medical interventions include antidepressant medication, medical marijuana and steroids.

Instead, I recommend focusing on quality of life. Caregivers should ask if there is anything the patient would like to eat. What is the patient's favorite food? The elderly need fats and calories. If three milkshakes a day are wanted, let the patient have them. Better yet, give milkshakes with nutritional supplements (like Ensure) mixed in.

Caregivers should consider cultural "comfort foods" as an option. They may want to research heritage to find and offer foods the patient might have had as a child. For example, chicken soup variations with a starch (noodles, potatoes or rice) are common across many cultures.

Some patients like spices or salt to enhance the flavors of foods. Their preferences are highly individualized, so there is no way to give general recommendations on this. If patients have high blood pressure, salting foods may increase it. But once again, maintaining perfect blood pressure may be a less important issue for an elderly patient. This is a discussion you should have with the patient and doctor. 

There are many sources on the Internet on the subject. However, be careful. There is a lot of hidden marketing online and many "miracle cures" offered. If a reader encounters any of the following words or statements, steer away from the page:

  • "Doctors don't want you to know"
  • "Miracle food"
  • "Guaranteed"
  • "All natural"
  • "100% Free!"
  • "Scientifically proven"
  • "Experts say"

Dr. Fish is the medical director of the Thompson House, a skilled nursing facility on the grounds of Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck. The Thompson House is also known as the Northern Dutchess Residential Health Care Facility.