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When Dad Eats Little and Often the Wrong Things

Thanksgiving, the day when most of us throw caution to the wind and eat until we’re uncomfortable or until the Tryptophan puts us to sleep — whichever comes first — is just days away. That makes this question from Barbara in Elyria, Ohio so timely.

She writes: “My father who is 94 does not want to eat much. He likes very few foods and most of the foods are not healthy foods.  I really think it is effecting his quality of life. What can I do?”

There are no one-size-fits-all answers here, but this much is certain: for many people, eating is one of the great joys in life and when that joy is lost it can be hard to get back.

(If any of you nutritionists out there want to chime in as to why our appetites change as we age, please have at it in the comments.)

So what might be going on here for Barbara’s dad and what can she do?

For one thing, his medications may be playing a role. They may be inhibiting his appetite or causing him to crave certain foods over others.  Sharing this information with his doctor isn’t a bad move.  He may be able to modify the medications or add an appetite stimulant.

Another possibility is that Barbara’s dad has depression.  Depression among the elderly is a real thing; a reduced appetite (and subsequent weight loss) are among the earliest signs. If you’re concerned that your aging parent may be depressed, talk to him or her about it and mention it to the doctor. An anti-depressant may help to curb the symptoms and stimulate his /her appetite.

Lastly, and this goes hand-in-hand with the possibility of depression, Barbara’s dad may not be eating much because he is lonely (i.e. socially isolated).  Perhaps he never learned to cook and isn’t interested — at the age of 94 — in learning how.  And let’s just say for argument sake that Barbara’s dad was a gourmet cook in his day. Poor mobility and decreased strength would make any one of us lean toward the prepackaged, ready to eat foods.  Can’t blame him there.

So how can Barbara help her father in this situation?

We’ve already discussed having a conversation with the doctor to ask about medication adjustments, an appetite stimulant, and/or an anti-depressant if appropriate.  But Barbara might also consider signing her dad up for Meals on Wheels. Or even better (and if possible) she might try to find a senior center nearby where he could eat a meal among his peers.

In fact, the more opportunities to eat with others the better.  Think neighbors, grandkids, great-grandkids, etc. Anyone who might be enlisted to stop by and sit down for a bowl of soup or even a sandwich with dad would be doing an incredibly powerful thing. So often social stimulation leads to appetite stimulation…

I’ve seen it more times than I can count.

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