Loss of Appetite—What’s Normal For My Parents and How Can I Help?

Have you noticed your parent has a loss of appetite? Are you concerned? Let's walk through nearly a dozen possible causes and their solutions.
loss of appetite in older adults

If you find that your older parent is eating less than they used to, as if they have a total loss of appetite, you naturally may feel concerned. There are many potential causes for an older adult eating less. Some of these causes have relatively easy remedies, while others may require a follow-up visit with a doctor to rule out a larger health problem.

What’s Normal in Terms of Appetite for Older Adults?

image of 4 older women eating ice cream - what are the signs for a loss of appetitie

Although everyone is a little different, it’s perfectly normal for aging adults to feel less hungry, though they shouldn’t display a complete loss of appetite.

A small loss of appetite is part of the aging process. It’s also normal for seniors to move less often, which can contribute to the decreased appetite as less muscle mass requires fewer calories. And finally, because muscle mass decreases with time, there isn’t always a need for the same number of calories compared to when they were younger.

Exact calorie needs will differ for everyone depending on their exact age and physical activity. Generally speaking, women over age 50 require 1,600 to 2,200 calories daily, while men require 2,000 to 2,800 calories. 

11 Reasons Why an Older Parent May Be Eating Less

image of a woman with a loss of appetite

In addition to normal aging, here are reasons why an older parent may not be eating as much:

1. Side effects from medications.

A wide range of medications may decrease appetite in any of us, including antidepressants, stimulant medications, and antibiotics, to name a few. Or, your parent may use medications that have GI effects like nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. These side effects may make your parent less interested in eating. 

If you aren’t already, you should be sure to connect with your parents and other loved ones on WayWiser and be sure to list out all of the medications that your parents are currently taking. This will make it much easier to speak with a doctor about if their eating habits don’t improve as you’ll have a quick reference of medications to discuss with them.

2. Dental/oral health issues.

Oral health issues are more common with age, and if your parent has a hard time chewing or has tooth/mouth pain, that could make eating a much less pleasant task. If they use dentures that are not fitted properly, these devices may cause sores in the mouth. In turn, eating may be a challenge.

If you think this might be the issue, consider planning some menus with chewing difficulties in mind.

3. They’re not getting enough movement.

Physical activity helps to rev up the appetite and if your older parent isn’t moving enough, their desire to eat also may lessen. Here are a few indoor exercises your parents can try out if getting them out and about isn’t easy.

4. Meal prep is a challenge.

Does your older parent live alone and have to prepare their own meals? Perhaps making meals has become more challenging due to dexterity issues. Or, they may have had a loved one who died and who is no longer making meals. Now, your parent just doesn’t want to make the effort toward meal prep or doesn’t know how. Here we list out 7 of the best meal planning apps that might help.

5. They’ve lost their sense of smell or taste.

Smell and taste play a big part in our desire for food. If these have decreased due to nasal congestion or other health problems that affect smell/taste, they may not want to eat so much.

6. There’s a more serious health problem.

Alzheimer’s, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and thyroid problems all can lead to a change in appetite. You don’t need to assume the worst if your older parent is eating less, but it’s worth checking with a health provider if other causes don’t seem to help.

7. Your older parent is dehydrated.

Dehydration becomes more common with age. It is also associated with a decrease in appetite. Here are 6 tips to help your parents (and yourself!) stay hydrated.

8. There’s no routine for mealtimes.

Just like the rest of us, older adults often thrive on routine. If their mealtimes aren’t consistent, it may be hard to establish regular patterns of hunger. 

9. There’s a negative association with mealtimes.

For whatever reason, your older parent may associate mealtimes with negative experiences. For instance, they may live in a senior living facility where they don’t know many people yet and feel bashful at mealtimes. Or, they may find themselves paired up with someone who likes to argue at meals, making eating a less pleasant experience. Conversely, they may be eating alone and dislike that experience..

10. They’re depressed.

Depression can affect hunger, as can antidepressant medication. If your mom or dad are living alone, this can quickly exacerbate depression as isolation is a leading cause of health decline, particularly in older adults.

11. Your loved one has vision issues.

Imagine if you can’t see what you’re served to eat. You may want to avoid eating too, right? Well, vision problems like cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration are more common with age and could affect your parent’s ability to see and enjoy what they are eating. Here are 6 quick tips on keeping your eyes healthy as you age.

How to Help A Parent Experiencing a Loss of Appetite

parent who had loss of appetite now eating broccoli

There are a few things you can do to help an older parent who is eating less.

1. Check in with their health provider.

A health provider can conduct a physical exam and perform bloodwork to check for illnesses, chronic problems, or other causes that may cause a loss of appetite. The provider also can review any medications used to see if one of them is causing an appetite decrease.

2. Consider a check in with their dentist or eye doctor.

These appointments can help rule out oral health issues or vision problems, respectively. Or, if there are problems, these specialists can make a treatment plan to address them. 

3. Serve foods that are more nutrient-dense.

If your loved one has a loss of appetite and isn’t eating much, you can use foods that are more calorie- and nutrient-dense, such as avocados, peanut butter, olive oil, and full-fat dairy products. If your older parent lives in a home where their meals are served, find out what they regularly eat to see if these nutrient-dense choices are on the menu. Here are 8 tips on how to adapt meals for older adults.

You also can discuss food choices with a registered dietitian, who can suggest healthy, nutrient-packed options. Medicare will cover the cost for a registered dietitian if your loved one’s provider says it’s medically necessary.

4. Look into an appetite stimulant medication.

This is yet another item you can discuss with a health provider. For some, an appetite stimulant may do the trick in boosting appetite. For others, there may not be enough potential benefit.

5. Make meals social and pleasant.

A meal with friendly people can make all the difference in a more enjoyable meal and turn around a loss of appetite. As we mentioned above, isolation can be a determining factor in health decline as we age, so keeping our parents engaged in social activities can really spark a difference.

6. Encourage more physical activity.

Movement helps lead to a bigger appetite. This article on low intensity workouts provides a bit more information on why exercise is so important to our bodies and minds as we age along with several ideas on great exercises for older adults. Just because you might not be able to lift 200 pounds over your head anymore doesn’t mean you can’t get some functional movement into your life.

7. Establish a mealtime routine.

Whether your older parent lives independently, with you, or in a senior facility, help them establish regular times to eat, including both meals and snacks. Sometimes a loss of appetite can be curbed with routine.

8. Look for meal prep solutions.

If preparing a meal is more challenging for your older parent, look into ways to make meal prep easier. How about pre-prepared healthy meals they just have to heat up? Here are 10 of our favorite meal delivery services.

Or if the problem is simply transportation to the store, consider one of these 7 awesome grocery delivery apps.

If dexterity is an issue, an occupational therapist can suggest ways to make mealtime easier. 

9. Make sure they stay hydrated.

Invest in a reusable water bottle to help your loved one get enough water throughout the day. Remind them to take sips from time to time even if they don’t feel thirsty. This can help head off feeling dehydrated.

In Conclusion

Helping an older parent who isn’t eating as much as they used to may feel frustrating at times. A loss of appetite can seem concerning and frustrating. However, the steps you take to address the problem will offer rewards as you help them get more nourishment throughout the day.

Have another question? Ask an expert.

Our team is here for you. If you have a question about caring for an older adult or other member of your family—be it physical, legal, medical, financial, or anything in between—we’ll have one of our Trusted Advisors get back to you ASAP.

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