What to do if your parent is not eating

Nov 10, 2016 4 min
How do I get my parent to eat?

It can be frightening and frustrating but there are ways to stimulate hunger if your parent is not eating. It’s all about the carrot, not the stick!

What to do if your parent is not eating

Has your Mum or Dad lost their appetite? Are they losing weight because they’re simply not getting the fuel and nutrition their body needs?

We all need food for energy, to repair cells and keep our bodies functioning properly. Sometimes as we get older, disease, debility or dementia can suppress the appetite and put us off our food. If your parent is eating less, try not to panic, the calorific need decreases with age and there’s lots you can do to tempt their taste-buds.

Spice it up

As we get older our senses can become dulled, so that our ability to smell and taste food diminishes. We rely on delicious aromas and flavours to stimulate our appetite and savour our food, if everything tastes like bland mush there’s little incentive to eat up.

If you’re the head chef and caregiver try to tweak your recipes; choose stronger flavours and experiment with herbs and spices to provide a little more piquancy and punch.

A visual feast

Impaired vision due to cataracts, diabetes, eye disease or just an out of date glasses prescription can mean that a plate of food can look like a dull, amorphous blob. You can make their meals more visually appealing by increasing the colours of food on the plate and separating them into sections so that there is clear definition.

Picking brightly coloured veggies, crisp salads and vibrant toppings or sauces arranged on plain white crockery can make a meal pop off the plate.

Little and often

If your parent isn’t hungry and has become accustomed to eating less, their stomach tends to adapt so they can’t take large meals and feel full sooner. Instead of over-facing them with huge platefuls, offer small calorie rich meals and frequent snacks throughout the day.

Dental checks

Often sore teeth and gums, or ill-fitting dentures can make it tricky to chew food. If your parent seems to be suffering, arrange a check-up with their dentist.

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While you’re waiting, offer softer foods. Canned and cooked fruit and vegetables, purees and soups, stews, scrambled eggs, yoghurt and ice-cream can all help provide the balanced diet they need without having to crunch and chew.

Control constipation

Decreased mobility, medication or drinking insufficient fluids can make the digestion sluggish and leave your parent constipated. Constipation can be horribly uncomfortable, causing cramp-like pains and the sensation that there is no room for any more food.

You can help prevent constipation by offering water regularly, upping their intake of dietary fibre and checking their medication with their doctor. Painkillers containing codeine can often leave patients bunged up, so see if there’s an alternative or consider a regular stool softener or laxative.

Practical Problems

Maybe your parent is struggling to cook food, perhaps they can’t get out to the shops, it might be too painful or exhausting to walk to the kitchen or arthritis might be making it tricky to hold their cutlery.

Talk to them about how they’re managing around the house, think about a social services care assessment to explore their individual needs; meals on wheels, a day centre or a carer coming into the home could help provide the support and the food they need.

Social stimulation

It can be miserable to always dine alone. Eating with others is enjoyable and can stimulate the appetite.

Encourage your parent to share a meal with others whenever possible; this could be Sunday lunch with the family, a regular visit to the day centre, breakfast at a local café or a sandwich after the service at a church or other religious group.

Try to get the whole family on board and focus on the fun and chat of a shared experience, rather than forcing your parent to swallow mouthful after mouthful.

Deal with depression

Depression doesn’t just lower the mood; it can also profoundly affect the appetite.

If your parent is feeling down, they may not feel hungry and they may also find it difficult to muster the motivation and energy to prepare and eat a meal.

Impaired mobility, disease, social isolation and the loss of a loved one can all trigger depression in the elderly. See if your parent will share their feelings with you or talk to their doctor about treatment to help lift their mood.

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A helping hand

Being the sole carer for an elderly parent can be very rewarding but also incredibly demanding and exhausting. Consider hiring a carer to come into the home to support your loved one and provide a friendly face.

They could nip to the shops to buy the food your parent loves, tempt them with a light meal or snack or sit down with them and chat over a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Sometimes getting regular reminders to eat, or being encouraged to share a treat socially can make all the difference.

If you’re worried that your parent is fading away and becoming frail, see your doctor for advice. They will be able to check if your parent’s medications are suppressing the appetite or giving them a nasty or metallic taste in their mouth.

They can also check for illness or disease and may consider recommending nutrient rich drinks or supplements to boost their intake and give their body the fuel it needs to stay healthy.

Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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