10 Reasons Seniors Lose Their Appetites & How to Help Them

Aging comes with a variety of challenges. We often think about the physical obstacles that elderly individuals encounter, but we may not always include the act of eating in this category. The hard truth is that so many seniors struggle with losing their appetites and for a variety of reasons. Here’s a list of 10 common triggers associated with lack of an appetite:

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  1. Lack of exercise or energy: Exercise and activity can help to increase your appetite. Many seniors have trouble exercising or properly exerting energy, and this can contribute to not wanting to eat.

  2. Difficulty with or the inability to prepare meals: As we age, our ability to think and act as quickly as when we were younger tends to decline. If the idea of eating becomes associated with not being able to prepare your own food or frustration with processing steps necessary to put together a meal, then it loses its appeal. 

  3. Difficulty completing the act of eating itself: If your aging loved one struggles with chewing, swallowing or eating independently, then he or she may just not want to eat. This can be due to medication, medical treatments, physical ailments, dental troubles or aging in general.

  4. Medication side effects: Make sure that you take the time to understand potential side effects of the medication your loved one is taking. If it has the potential to stimulate loss of appetite, then you may want to consult with their physician to see if there are alternative options.

  5. Depression or loneliness: According to the CDC, 80% of adults struggle with at least one chronic health condition; and those that have other illnesses are at an increased risk for experiencing depression. If your aging loved one is experiencing intense feelings of sadness or anxiety, then he or she may be struggling with depression and may, in turn, be enduring appetite loss.

  6. Mealtime is no longer enjoyable: If your loved one now associates food or mealtimes with frustration, arguments or disputes, then he or she is more likely to boycott eating. 

  7. Loss of taste or smell sensitivity: We rely heavily on our senses, and if we start to lose them or if they become compromised, then it can change how we react to different stimuli. As we age, taste buds often lose their ability to detect flavor. Lack of flavor means that food is bland and not as appetizing as it once might have been, which can result in limited interest in eating. In addition to taste, smell sensitivity can also be a factor. The smell of certain foods may result in nausea rendering your loved one disinterested in eating. 

  8. Dehydration: Is your loved one getting enough fluids? Dehydration is a common side effect of many medications and can lead to a loss of appetite. 

  9. Lack of routine: If your aging loved one struggles with not having a set routine, then it may impact how they view mealtimes. Without a routine, they may not feel the need to eat regularly, may forget or may just lose interest in doing so. 

  10. No control: Losing independence can be a harsh reality to grasp for aging loved ones. A refusal to eat may just be a demonstration of not wanting to eat at all when you can no longer choose which foods you’re going to consume.

So what are some ways that we can work to help our loved ones regain their appetites and the desire to eat again? Here are a few tips:

  • Be aware of medication side effects - If your loved one experiences dehydration or metallic tastes from their medication, then try different sources of food or add ingredients like herbs or moderate spices that can adjust the flavor profile. If you have an understanding of what happens when your loved one takes a certain medication, then you can work together to solve your mealtime struggles.

  • Consider an appetite stimulant - Consult with your loved one’s healthcare professional to determine if administering a prescription appetite stimulant is a viable option. 

  • Increase nutrients, not the volume of food - If your loved one is having difficulty consuming a particular portion size or helping of food, Heather Schwartz, RD recommends increasing nutrient density into the meal without increasing the amount. For example, foods like avocado and peanut butter can function to solve certain nutrient deficiencies.

  • Make mealtime social again - If your loved one lives alone and is often left to eat solo, then this can create a negative association with the act of food consumption. Encourage your loved one to attend church socials or visit community centers to share a meal with others and promote it as a social outing. A meal delivery service can also assist with adding a social component to eating. 

  • Establish an eating schedule - If you can help your aging loved one to set a daily routine that incorporates mealtimes, then he or she may be more likely to develop a habit of eating regularly.

How have you successfully helped your aging loved one to regain his or her appetite, eat more regularly, and enjoy eating again?