When Eating Becomes a Bitter Pill
Eating Problems In Illness and Aging
Seniors face more trouble then others when it comes to eating. Those challenges include:
- Digestion Problems
- Food Preparation
- Grocery Shopping
- Eating Alone
- The Cost Of Food on a Limited Income
Let’s take them one at a time. Chewing and swallowing become a problem after a stroke, in progressive dementia or other degenerative diseases. Dentition (teeth, mouth, gums) can be the problem also. Ask if your parent/loved one needs a swallowing evaluation.
They are usually done by a speech therapist with doctor in attendance (as in nearby and available). The therapist spoons various textures and temperatures of foods, one small bite at a time. The foods, tagged with a dye making it visible via X-ray show in real times as swallowed. I watched my mom’s swallowing evaluation from behind the shield. It was really helpful as well as fascinating. They’re also done by the therapist simply observing as your parent eats.
The problem depends on the cause. Sometimes the brain is out of synch with the muscles and nerves. My dad has Parkinson’s Disease. In his case the muscles are losing strength.
My mom has advanced dementia. Her brain can’t direct the intricate muscular progression required to swallow smoothly. Think about it–tongue, jaw, palate, and esophageal coordination are needed to swallow. If it’s out of order or not strong enough to complete the action, the food doesn’t go to the right place. My mom ends up with food pocketed in her cheeks and doesn’t know it. When she does swallow, the food doesn’t go far enough down her throat. Her’s sits just on the flap that opens or closes to her trachea. If she breathes or talks while eating, the flap opens, food drops into her trachea and she chokes. It’s like when we say, “it went down the wrong way.”
Sometimes changing the texture of the food helps. My mom does best with food of uniform texture, the consistency of mashed potatoes. Some do best with thickened cold foods, like a smoothie. Some choke on thin, hot liquids like coffee or tea. Follow the recommendations of the therapist.
Digestion problems cause elders to refuse food. If every time you ate, you got stomach cramps, pain, or diarrhea, you’d avoid eating too. With your elder’s doctor, try to pinpoint the problem. Sometimes changing the diet helps. Sometimes medications are needed.
Food preparation is no fun when arthritic hands hurt, you can’t stand or move easily. Stirring and chopping become painful. Poor vision means you can’t tell if your pot is boiling. Because of memory loss, you forget the salt or the sugar and the results are inedible. Pre-made meals are one solution, having a caregiver fix a meal ensures at least one good meal a day Freezing small, micro-waveable meals for your elder works. Be prepared–they may not eat them. They forget they have them or like my parents-in-law, want nothing but crackers and Cokes. You’ll probably go through a trial and error period. Maybe there isn’t a perfect solution. Sometimes it just has to be “good enough.”
Grocery shopping requires transportation. If an elder can no loner drive, and it’s too far to walk, finding a driver is an option. Stores in our area now offer curbside pick-up. Store employees fill your list. You pick up groceries without ever leaving your car. Perhaps a neighbor or friend would be willing to pick up items for your elder when they shop.
Eating for one isn’t fun. Meals are social in nearly all cultures. Recipes come in family portions. Discuss making a meal, eating a part, and freezing the rest. Listening to music or a recorded book can make eating less lonely. Explore arranging for a friend or neighbor to share meals once a week if you aren’t nearby. A group of widows at our church used to meet regularly to eat out. It looked like they were having fun. Sadly, the group no longer meets, the group disbanded by illness and the passing of some members.
The Cost Of Food
Shopping for food on a limited income is tricky. Unless you buy frozen meals for one, most packages are intended for three or four people. You’re faced with freezing leftovers, eating them until you’re sick of the same thing or wasting some. Even though there are four of us at our house it’s challenging because my husband and I get tired of bland, soft foods. Some nights I end up making two completely different meals .
Meals on Wheels provides food for seniors in nearly every community in the country. The service is on a sliding scale fee. If your senior can get out, they can eat at a community or senior center. If they are home-bound, a volunteer delivers the meal.
Low income seniors are eligible for food stamps. Coupons can save money also. If you know what your elder likes, clip coupons for them and ask your friends to do the same. It’s an easy thing to do and if you’re like me, the coupons come in your email. You just print them out or have the checker scan the coupon from your phone.
I’ve found, going on nine years of elder care, that just when you think you found a state of equilibrium, something upsets the apple cart. What worked six months ago doesn’t work now. It’s been a good exercise in learning flexibility and coming up with new ways to meet changing challenges. What problems have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Have a good caregiving day,