The average person has a difficult time turning down a bowl of their favorite ice cream, unless under the influence of an illness. Even then, it’s usually not a hard sell. A loss of appetite, however, is very common in the senior citizen community. Caregivers must be aware of their loved one’s eating habits to ensure nutritional requirements are being met. Just as we can’t imagine passing up that bowl of sweet dessert, your loved one can’t afford to miss the most basic of meals.

Take notice when a loved one turns down their favorite bowl of ice cream. It could be your first indication of a problem that could seriously affect their health.


Signs of Elderly Malnutrition

Although the causes of malnutrition seem straightforward, they are often caused by a combination of physical, social and psychological issues. Seniors with unintentional weight loss show a high risk for infections, depression and, ultimately, early death.

30% of seniors skip at least one meal a day. 16% of seniors consume fewer than 1,000 calories a day. It is important to recognize the warning signs of this easily remedied problem before it becomes destructive.



The most obvious sign of appetite loss, thus malnutrition, is a physical effect on a person’s body. Weight or hair loss, bruising and weakness are visible signs of distress. So are persistent and recurrent infections, fatigue, depression and poor skin integrity. Keeping an open eye to a loved one’s physical appearance and function is vital.

Other physical problems, such as when an aging loved one has chewing and swallowing difficulties, poorly-fitted dentures, or other teeth issues, may prevent easy chewing/swallowing.

Tip: A visit to the dentist may be all that’s needed to make eating much easier and more enjoyable.


Medication Mix

Another phenomenon, “spreadsheet syndrome,” is a large cause of malnutrition in older adults. Prescription medications may alter a body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food, and also impair its natural process of excreting minerals.

Drugs may also cause a mental alteration of taste and smell. Many medications and certain medical conditions themselves contribute to appetite loss in seniors, simply by lessening the senses that cause food cravings. Some medications make foods seem bland and unattractive, while others may prolong the “full” feeling, decreasing one’s desire to eat. This is especially unhealthy when it affects daily meals, essential for life and health.

Many people are programmed to take medications with a glass of water. For seniors, this may cause filling up right before a meal.

Tip: Talk to the pharmacist to see if a medication may be taken after a meal to avoid fullness when it’s time to eat.


Social Interaction

Many seniors are without a spouse and thus left to eat meals solo. They are prone to eat unhealthy meals, lacking the energy to prepare food.

Tip: Offer a loved one an invitation to be a part of the family whenever they are able to participate. A loss of appetite in a loved one can be caused by loneliness with a quick fix by offering companionship.


Food Shopping

Many seniors suffer from appetite loss due to the inability to access healthy food. Crowded grocery stores, busy streets and overfilled parking lots can produce anxiety in a senior. Add less-than-ideal weather and it’s scary for many elderly people. One underlying factor: money. The cost of food continues to rise. A loved one on a fixed income feels the pinch.

Tip: A simple weekly ride to the grocery store can be a quick fix. Also, online shopping and home delivery is a good option.


Tips to Improve a Senior’s Appetite

Cool, Clear Water

Dehydration can affect an appetite. Senior should not drink too much right before a meal but should keep hydrated throughout the entire day.


Mix It Up

Try something new. New recipes, a change in routine, or add a little garlic or lemon to spice up a chicken breast. Serve small portions. Snacking is perfectly acceptable and encouraged. Count calories.

Nutritional supplements should be used with extreme caution; only at the recommendation of a physician. A loved one may not process Vitamin A as quickly as a younger person.

Tip: A daily multi-vitamin could be a benefit; ask the doctor.


Get Up and Move

Exercise is important. Moderate strength training will increase metabolism, thus appetite.



About the Author

Lois Young-Tulin, PhD, is an Assistant Geriatric Care Manager at Complete Care Strategies

Complete Care Strategies consists of care managers, specialized human service professionals, who advocate and direct the care of seniors and others facing ongoing health challenges. Working with families, its expertise provides the answers at a time of uncertainty. Along with its licensed home care division, it can help clients safely remain at home under the watchful eye of skilled professionals. Families are afforded an integrated model of care that, with guidance and advocacy, lead them to the actions and decisions that ensure quality care and an optimal life for those they love