Holidays and Health: Eating Concerns of the Elderly

From special feasts to parties to family togetherness and comfy stay-in-your-jammies-and-watch-the-snow-fall day, there’s lots to enjoy and be thankful for at holiday time. Sometimes we get pretty wrapped up in our own lives and preparations for the holidays, but this is an important time to check in with the older people in our lives. Why? Well, for many elderly people, the holidays don’t seem so fun and festive anymore. Of course, there are a variety of reasons why, many of which have nothing to do nutrition. But with food being such a central part of the holidays, I think it makes sense to give the elderly a little extra attention in the nutrition and eating department. If you don’t have an older person in your family to help care for, there’s a good chance that you do have an elderly neighbor, friend or even acquaintance you see regularly in your community.

Bright dishes like this Holiday Slaw can offer great nutrition, but be sure to check in on whether your older guests can eat crunchy foods.

Nutrition issues have no season, but…

Healthful eating is important year ‘round, but around the holidays certain things may crop up in a way that makes food and nutrition-related issues more obvious (or less so). Many times older people who live on their own don’t want to “bother” others—especially at the holiday time. However, you can show your care and concern by taking some time to connect with the seniors in your life. Observe their living situations, ask tactful questions to help pinpoint their challenges and inquire about what would be most helpful to them. You might just find that a little “checking in” with an older person during the holiday time makes a big difference in their enjoyment of the season, and their well being, too. Here are a few areas where problems can occur.

Food restrictions hamper holiday meals.

Health conditions, poor dentition, trouble swallowing and medications that make foods taste “off” can all make big holiday meals uncomfortable for seniors. Nobody likes being the person who can’t partake of all the wonderful food around. If you’re hosting, be sure to ask older guests ahead of time about any food restrictions (such as needing lower sodium foods, lower fat foods or foods with a soft texture), or if there are foods that “don’t agree” with them. There are lots of holiday-appropriate recipes online for heart-healthy or diabetes-friendly holiday fare, for example. Also be sure to ask about any favorite foods so you can be sure there is something pleasing for your older guests.

So much food can be overwhelming with no appetite.

As wonderful as an abundant holiday table can be, it may seem overwhelming to someone with no appetite. Appetite and the ability to taste and smell naturally decreases with age, plus medications and or medical treatments can contribute to diminished pleasure from eating, too. Nobody wants to be rude at a holiday party or dinner by not eating; avoiding big social scenes at holiday time might feel less stressful, leading to refused invitations. Offering to accompany your older friend or relative might ease some of the awkward feelings. If you are the one hosting, consider inviting your elderly guest to a smaller affair—one where he or she will feel comfortable talking and socializing. Also think about perhaps having a gathering that doesn’t revolve around food: a gift-wrapping party, an excursion to a holiday performance or a card-writing session with just a few people can lift spirits and allow for holiday social time without the pressure of eating.

Inability to get out can make it hard to get food.

People don’t just eat big holiday feasts all season long—we need regular, healthful food on hand as well. With less-than-lovely weather in some parts of the country, driving to do grocery shopping can be challenging for seniors. Consider offering to help with shopping (either doing a couple shopping trips for—or with—him or her): it could be just what your elderly neighbor needs most. You could also investigate whether any local stores deliver groceries directly to homes.