Next week, Oct. 5-9, is Malnutrition Awareness Week.
The goal of the week is to educate health care professionals on early detection, prevention and treatment of malnutrition; educate consumers and patients on discussing their nutrition statuses with health care professionals; and increase awareness of nutrition’s role on patient recovery.
My grandfather passed away in the early 1990s. He was a wonderful man, and many of my earliest memories involve “working” on his car. He would do the work while I supervised from my seat on the radiator. He had quite a sweet tooth, and we would sneak down to the ice cream shop on the corner when Grandma wasn’t looking.
Grandpa lived alone for the last five years before he moved into a nursing facility. He had family around, but he wanted his independence and discouraged us from visiting or being too helpful.
In his last year at home, he developed dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) and started losing weight. When it became apparent that the situation was not going to improve and the family insisted that he allow us to intervene, we found nothing but sugary sweets and milk in his kitchen. He had been living on cookies and milk for quite some time — soaking cookies in milk until he was able to swallow them.
Good nutrition is critical to overall health and well-being. The risk for malnutrition increases as we age — and it is not always a matter of income level. It is often caused by a combination of physical, social and psychological issues.
Vulnerable older adults are at the highest risk. In the health context, a vulnerable older person has complex dynamics at play. Such factors may be:
Health concerns. Older adults often have health problems, such as dementia or dental issues, that can lead to decreased appetite or trouble eating. Other factors that might play a role include a chronic illness, use of certain medications, difficulty swallowing, a recent hospitalization, or a diminished sense of taste or smell.
Restricted diets. Dietary restrictions — such as limits on salt, fat, protein or sugar — can help manage certain medical conditions but might also lead to poor eating habits.
Lack of food. Some older adults might have trouble getting to the grocery store. Or they may have limited resources, especially if they're taking expensive medications.
Reduced social contact. Older adults who eat alone might not enjoy meals as before, causing them to lose interest in cooking and eating.
Depression. Grief, loneliness, failing health, lack of mobility and other factors might contribute to depression — causing loss of appetite.
Alcoholism or other addictions. Too much alcohol or other intoxicants can interfere with the digestion and absorption of nutrients. It’s not uncommon to skip meals or make unhealthy food choices when under the influence of alcohol, stimulants, opioids or other drugs.
Malnutrition in older adults can contribute to or cause a variety of problems, such as a weakened immune system, increasing the possibility of infection; slower wound healing; muscle weakness and loss of bone mass, which can lead to falls; an increased likelihood of hospitalization; and a higher risk of death. Malnutrition can also cause an increased loss of appetite — making the situation worse.
If you have an older friend or family member at risk of malnutrition, contact the SeniorCare Nutrition Department at 978-281-1750. There are several programs that may be helpful. It might be Meals on Wheels home-delivered lunches, picking up a lunch at a local Council on Aging or meeting with a nutritionist over the phone.
The Open Door Food Pantry and Beverly Bootstraps may also be able to assist with emergency groceries, assistance with a SNAP (food stamps) application, meal delivery and more. Call The Open Door at 978-283-6776 or Beverly Bootstraps at 978-921-4710 for more information.
Tracy Arabian is the communications officer at SeniorCare Inc., a local agency on aging that serves Gloucester, Beverly, Essex, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester, Rockport, Topsfield and Wenham.