Preventing malnutrition in later life

Carers and nutrition

holding hands

This week is Carers Week, a vitally important time for recognising the contribution carers make to families and communities across the UK and highlighting their challenges.  

According to Carers UK, 60% worry about the nutrition of the person they care for and one in six care for someone at risk of malnutrition but receive no nutritional support.

One reason why nutrition can be challenging for carers is down to the myths surrounding it. It’s often thought weight loss is simply ‘natural’ in later life and that eating too much is the problem rather than eating too little. Fat and calories tend to be seen as inherently bad and weight loss has positive connotations even amongst those malnourished. However we know this is untrue.

Responding to an older person’s weight loss is important and there are health problems that might result from not eating enough. These go beyond a general negative impact on wellbeing and can include lengthened recovery time from surgery and increased hospital admissions.

So what can a carer do about weight loss in someone they’re caring for?

Firstly, it’s important to be aware of the signs. Although rapid weight loss can be easy to notice, gradual weight loss can be harder to detect. Look at clothing: is their jewellery slipping off or are they tightening their belt buckle an extra notch? These could be signs of weight loss. Lethargy, difficulty in keeping warm and frequent infections are other symptoms.

Also be mindful that older people can be reluctant to talk about any form of weight loss, out of fear of worrying friends or family or being seen as unable to cope. If you’re worried someone close could be losing weight, you could start by discussing food and eating broadly – what do they like eating? Is there a particular snack they really enjoy or an occasion they remember eating a tasty meal?

There are many things you can do if weight loss is a problem in an older person you are caring for. You could encourage them to visit their GP to rule out serious illnesses. If they need specialist dietary advice or have difficulty swallowing, the GP can arrange for a meeting with a dietician or speech and language therapist.

Yet remember there are plenty of other things that can be done to tackle a small appetite; a GP visit needn’t always be the first course of action. For instance, you could plan visits around mealtimes so you can eat with them which, in turn, could encourage them to eat. If they can’t face a large meal, encourage them to eat small meals and snacks throughout the day. Also ensure the food looks and smells appealing as pleasant aromas can stimulate the appetite.

If you would like more information, read our Guide which provides tailored advice for carers on weight loss in older people. It covers signs of unhealthy weight loss, more suggestions on what can be done to prevent this, recipe suggestions and easy ways to add extra nutrition to small meals.

There’s no doubt that caring for someone with weight loss can cause worries. But with the tips outlined above and in the Guide, hopefully some of these can be diminished.

Blog contributed by Apetito’s Lee Sheppard 

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