Spice of Life A New View on Elder Nutrition Urges Seniors to Ban the Bland

In her spotless kitchen overlooking Hampton Ponds in Westfield, Helen Sullivan, 99, was recently engaged in a new pastime: dipping bananas and strawberries in milk chocolate and rolling them, carefully, in plates of toffee chips, coconut, and jimmies.

The desserts would soon serve as a much-deserved treat for Sullivan, a lifelong chocoholic who will celebrate her 100th birthday later this summer. But they were also evidence of a custom-tailored plan designed to add a wide array of foods and the nutrients they contain to her diet, without sacrificing time, energy, or most importantly, flavor.

“It’s tough getting old,” said Sullivan with a light laugh, as she gingerly prepared another berry. “You think of things you would like to do but aren’t able to, like cooking a meal or baking some cookies, and it can be very frustrating.”

But elder care professionals, among them dietitians, home care providers, and others, say there are some interventions that can help the elderly create more-balanced relationships with food, and in turn lead healthier, fuller lives.

Suzanne McElroy, owner of the Western Mass. branch of Home Instead Senior Care, a national non-medical home care outfit, said that, in recent years, nutrition has taken on a more visible role in the care of the elderly, as it is a key component to improving overall quality of life and longevity.

“No one ever says ‘she died of a calcium deficiency,’ or ‘he died of because he didn’t eat enough protein,’” she explained, “but when the intake of nutrients goes down, a senior can develop problems very quickly.”

Spice it Up

McElroy said addressing the specific nutritional needs most elders have can decrease instances of those problems, but beyond that, she stressed that nutritional plans for seniors must also be simple to understand, include a variety of foods, and, above all, be palatable. Gone is the notion that food should be watered down and bland for seniors, she said. On the contrary, spicing it up can be just the fix for an incomplete diet.

“We need to be focused on making our seniors feel as good as possible,” she said, “and that’s where recipes come in. Food should be enjoyable, good to eat, and tasty.”

To that end, Home Instead recently enlisted the Food Network’s Rachael Ray, star of 30 Minute Meals and the author of a number of cookbooks, to serve as a national spokesperson for ‘Spice it Up for the Elderly,’ an awareness campaign providing cooking and meal-preparation tips as well as recipes to seniors and their caregivers.

“We want to control portion sizes for seniors and also ensure that they are not getting stuck in a rut,” said McElroy, noting that the campaign touts the nutritional content and easy, economical preparation of a number of unique dishes, among them double-dipped spicy chicken, double-stuffed potatoes, and Sullivan’s favorite, the chocolate-dipped bananas. “The campaign stresses the use of new, or even exotic flavors that create great flavor and take the place of salt. The idea is that food doesn’t have to be boring for seniors.”

Courses of Action

Livening up an elder’s diet doesn’t end at merely providing a wider choice of meals, however – it can also lead to the prevention of several serious nutrition-based health issues that many elders face.

Jennifer Giffune, a registered, licensed dietitian and nutritional consultant for Noble Hospital in Westfield, said the elderly can develop a number of health issues based on their diets that are unique to those of advanced age, but a diverse diet has been proven to be a strong preventative measure.

“Seniors don’t necessarily need a lot of food, because a senior’s calorie requirements are usually less so than when they were younger,” she said. “But they do need nutrient-dense foods in their diet. These include lean meats, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats.”

Dr. Chris Keroack, medical director for the Comprehensive Weight Management Program at Mercy Medical Center, added that the elderly are at particular risk for malnutrition and decreases in energy expenditure.

“On average, about 40{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of individuals over 70 years of age eat less than two-thirds of the RDA requirements for their energy needs,” he said. “Because of this, attempts should be made to have a variety of food sources in the hope that energy dense and nutritionally dense foods are added to the regimen of the elderly.”
Keroack agreed with Giffune that foods containing whole grains, calcium, vitamins D and B-12, and other nutrients should be added to mererly cover basic nutritional needs.

“Nutrient dense foods, higher fiber foods, good fluid levels and vitamin supplementation are essential in obtaining and maintaining optimal health,” he said.

A diet that introduces new recipes and flavor combinations is an effective way to incorporate new foods, added Giffune, as well as to keep elders on track with their eating habits and engaged with the social aspects of eating, from preparation to dining with friends and family. But it can also lead to some notable medical results.

“A steady diet of foods that are enhanced with flavor, especially as part of low-sodium diets, has been shown to boost the immune system and even one’s ability to hold silverware – because getting nutrients they need, their motor function improves,” she said, noting that all elders need appropriate levels of calcium to help combat conditions such as osteoporosis, but also iron to fight anemia, and protein to maintain muscle mass, which begins to decline with age.

Giffune listed several other issues that can lead to poor nutrition among elders, including limited income, dental problems, and reduced mobility.

“These are additional concerns that seniors face that the rest of the population usually doesn’t, and they all have a direct effect on nutrition,” she said. “And as we age, we also have a decreased ability to taste foods, and a decreased ability to smell … both make a huge difference in eating habits. Elders are also at greater risk for depression, and when you’re feeling blue, you either eat for comfort or stop eating altogether.

“Finally,” Giffune added, “most seniors are on one or more medications, which can lead to dehydration and the problems that result – not just thirst, but kidney problems, dementia, and lowered levels of vitamins B-6 and B-12.”

All of those issues are in addition to the health problems that people of all ages face such as obesity and heart disease, which can be remedied by positive nutritional changes. In addition to livening up the day-to-day menu in a senior’s home, Giffune recommended other small fixes in the kitchen to make appropriate eating habits easier.

“For those elders with dental problems, a visit to the dentist to make sure dental appliances work and fit correctly can make a world of difference,” she said. “If money is an issue, caregivers and seniors can look into dental schools and reduced-cost dental care.

“Seniors should also be evaluated for their ability to use their hands, and assistance programs should be utilized – family members often need to help with that process,” she continued. “Especially for those of the Depression era, it’s not always easy to convince an elder to use food stamps. It’s also key that every senior own a blender. It’s the best appliance for people who need quick easy food. We’re not talking about gourmet meals, here.”

Candy Girl

Like McElroy, Giffune said not all dietetic changes to an elder’s lifestyle need to be complicated. Some are as simple as a call to the doctor’s office to make an appointment with a dietitian, who can summarize a patient’s needs and create a workable diet plan.

And others can make life a little sweeter. As she spoke with The Healthcare News, Sullivan took a moment to take in the waterfront view from her kitchen, then the vase of Mothers’ Day flowers on the table. Smiling, she placed the last chocolate-drenched banana on a dish in front of her, and popped a stray toffee chip into her mouth with a chuckle.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at stevenson@healthcarenews.com

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