Carol Cummings, RN, BSN, Expert on Aging Well

Contact Carol
07 March 2019

Our eating habits and nutritional needs evolve as we age. Think about it. Infants require a fat and protein rich diet, primarily from breastmilk or formula, while children, teens and young adults need a more balanced diet. Older adults, especially those over the age of 70, have their own unique nutritional needs due to changes in body composition, metabolism and nutrient absorption, along with a decrease in appetite. A common misconception is that people assume all adults should be eating the same quantities and types of foods, but in fact there are many considerations.

Food is an essential component of everyday life. Beyond nutrition, food can add meaning and structure to a person’s day. Food provides a sense of security and gives us feelings of independence and control. Our food habits are influenced throughout our lives by living arrangements, finances, transportation and mobility.

At Brookdale, we often see new residents who come into a senior living community underweight and malnourished. Through our dietary support and dining programs, they may be able to gain weight, strength and even a sense of independence. Some of these residents may have lived on their own and struggled to feed themselves due to physical and/or mental limitations. Many older adults experience a decrease in appetite, have to eat more slowly, or experience trouble chewing and swallowing. According to the National Council on Aging, 80 percent of older adults live with hypertension, diabetes or heart disease, which can affect food intake and how their bodies process food. This is why we focus on nutrient density, which means getting the most nutritious bang for your calorie buck. Nutrient dense foods pack as much protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber into as many smaller bites as possible.

Packing in Nutrients
Older adults should consume between 1,800 and 2,000 calories each day, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Real food, rather than supplements like nutritional shakes and drinks, should be the primary source of calories, according to Brookdale’s Director of Nutrition, Sara Fagan. Supplements can be given between meals, not used as a meal replacement. If someone does need more calories than they can consume, supplements can be given between meals to aid in increasing intake. Fagan recommends serving whole foods and mixing in or adding food fortifiers that boost calories and protein. Fortifiers include cheese, milk powder, butter and olive oils. This helps pack more nutrients and calories into smaller bites.

Examples of nutrient and calorie packed foods:

  • Greek Yogurt topped with nuts, seeds, fruit or peanut butter
    • 190 calories, 20g protein per cup
  • Cottage Cheese, topped with fruit or even mixed into pancakes or other dishes for a calorie boost
    • 92 calories, 11g protein per ½ cup
  • Peanut Butter, spread on toast with jam
    • 191 calories, 7g protein per 2 tablespoon
  • Ice Cream, instead of a supplement drink
    • 250 calories, 4g protein per ½ cup

Eating Environment Matters
Where you eat can have a big impact on how you eat. This is especially true with older adults who are living with dementia. At Brookdale, we strive to make our dining rooms clean, calm and relaxing places with limited distractions such as TVs or people walking around. How food is presented plays a key role in the success of a meal. We see more successful eating episodes when the table is well lit, tablecloths are plain colors rather than patterns, and objects like salt and pepper, fake fruit or elaborate centerpieces, which can be confusing, are kept off the table.

Fagan recommends using bright, solid colored plates, bowls and cups, which offer a contrast between the food served on or in them. This allows those with challenged eyesight or dementia to more clearly identify where the food is. She also recommends serving smaller portions and only putting one or two foods on a plate at a time if someone is easily overwhelmed when eating. Fagan also explains that the time between when a person sits down to eat and when their food is served should be kept to a minimum, and residents shouldn’t be rushed to finish.

You can get more tips from Fagan in our ongoing Optimum Life Continuing Education series. She presents our March 2019 program, “Older Adult Nutrition: Practical Strategies.” This webinar offers strategies to help ensure older adults get the nutrition they need. If you are interested in learning more, register for “Older Adult Nutrition: Practical Strategies” for professional credit on Brookdale’s Optimum Life Continuing Education page.

At Brookdale, our chefs work hand-in-hand with dietitians to develop menus that provide residents with nutritious and delicious dining options. We take pride in serving our residents nutritious and delicious food. Nearly everything that comes out of our kitchens is made from scratch, using fresh meats, seafood, produce and spices. We ask for and gladly accept resident feedback to help make improvements and additions to our menu. Our skilled culinary and service teams create exceptional dining experiences that residents can enjoy with their friends, families, and guests.

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