Aches and pains. Wrinkles. Grey hair. Aging has its fair share of unwelcome changes, but one seems particularly cruel for South Louisiana seniors born and raised with our unique culinary traditions: the sense of smell and taste begins to decline at age 50. By age 80, a person’s sense of smell–a critical factor in the taste of foods–can be reduced by as much as 50 percent.
Nutritionists and dieticians who work with seniors say this is one of the reasons they see high rates of malnutrition and unhealthy eating habits in seniors who have lost the joy of eating. Often, the turn to high-fat, high-sodium pre-packaged “convenience” foods because they’re easy to prepare and have more flavor.
For adult children caring for aging parents (more than 34 million, according to AgingCare.com), ensuring seniors are eating well is a big concern.
When his 73-year-old mother, Elaine, was living in a nursing home, Joseph Wiltz of Kenner witnessed the sharp slip in her eating habits. “She ate a lot of quick and unhealthy meals, even though she used to be a registered nurse,” says Wiltz, a resident of Kenner. Convenience foods are high in fat, salt and sugar, which may offer more flavor, but little nutritional value.
After being hospitalized last year, Elaine moved in Wiltz and his family with doctors orders for a low-sodium diet. Wiltz and his wife work full-time, and Elaine needed healthy meal options she could execute on her own without standing for too long. So Elaine turned to meal delivery services.
“I experimented with a lot of different companies and different diets, but I didn’t like any of them very much,” she says. “You had to order a whole week, and they didn’t give you a lot of choice.”
Things changed when she was introduced to Clean Creations low-sodium meal plan.
“Clean Creations uses a lot of fresh herbs and spices, and for me, that’s what makes a meal,” says Elaine. “I love to cook, and if I don’t have fresh herbs—forget it. I’m not even gonna start something.”
Using fresh herbs, citrus, and signature spice blends is one of the cornerstones of Clean Creations’ healthy gourmet meals–and its what sets the meal delivery service apart from others, says owner Barbara Bolotte-Blank. “We always say it’s not just good-for-you-food; our meals are good food. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to boost the flavor of a dish without adding salt or fat.”
Customizing meal plans specifically for senior dietary needs and restrictions is another way the New Orleans-based meal delivery company ensures clients are meeting optimum nutrition guidelines.
“I went through this with my mom, who passed away in January,” says Molly Kimball, a registered dietician with Ochsner Fitness and EatFit NOLA. Complications following a major surgery left her 67-year-old mother, Marti, wheelchair-bound and hospitalized for a year prior to her passing. “Becoming the caregiver really changed my perspective. Dieticians look at things as very black or white, matter of fact, ‘Here’s the nutrients we need.’ But the reality is, what are they going to do? How much is that battle worth?”
Her mother was tube feeding for the first six months, and as Kimball watched, Marti’s hair began to fall out, her skin thinned and she developed sores. “But, when she was finally able to eat on her own, it was terrible hospital-quality spaghetti and meatballs, and lemon icebox pie–not healthy at all,” admits Kimball. “But everything started to reverse and heal. I decided that even though it wasn’t the salmon, sweet potatoes and vegetables that I wanted her to have, it was still providing more nutrition than the tube feeding.”
Even small changes in an aging adult’s diet can have a big impact. Here, Kimball offers tips for caregivers and seniors.
Moderate in Moderation
Be careful not to be too restrictive about the foods that make them happy, like a cherished dessert or familiar family meal. Unless its causing harm (i.e. are they getting sick or putting on too much weight?), the foods they love–in moderation–fosters a healthy joy of eating. “My mom went through a popcorn phase and it was popping the caps off her teeth and causing dental issues,” says Kimball.
Serve by Example
When inviting an aging parent or senior for dinner or bringing a dish to share, introduce something new and more nutritious. They might not know how to prepare new foods, like salmon or cauliflower “rice,” so offer them easy recipe options.
Simple, Healthier Swaps.
Watch their eating habits and offer lighter options for the heavy hitters. Are they eating a lot of ice cream at night? Try a low-sugar option, like Halo Top. All carbs for breakfast? Special K has a high-protein cereal. If they’re milk drinkers, Fairlife is an ultra-filtered milk with less sugar and lactose, and 50 percent more protein.
Protein in Every Meal and Snack
Lack of protein and low activity can lead to sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass that happens very easily over the age of 50. “Do everything you can to support muscle mass,” warns Kimball. “Muscle loss contributes to weakness and increases the risk of falling.” Add an egg or cheese to breakfast. Put almond or peanut butter on toast. Eat fresh fruit with cottage cheese or Greek yogurt. “Sam’s and Costco have a lot of good protein bars. My older clients prefer Nature Valley and Oatmega because they have a nice taste and texture, and are high in protein.”
Get Meals Delivered
For parents who want to maintain their independence, meal delivery is a growing business trend. Here in New Orleans, Kimball recommends services like Clean Creations because they serve a variety of special dietary needs. (Clean Creations serves the New Orleans, Northshore and Baton Rouge area.)
Replace the Meal Replacers
“One thing I would keep out of everybody’s hands are bottles of Ensure, Boost or Glucerna,” cautions Kimball. “They all have so much sugar and they’re just awful. There are so many other ready-to-drink protein shakes out there that are high-protein, low-sugar and vitamin-fortified.” The Atkins shakes or local Iconic brand are better options because they are lower in sugar.
Take a Multivitamin
This will cover any micronutrients that might be missing in their diet. Even if they’re eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, they’re probably not getting the variety they need. The vitamin provides a little extra insurance against deficiencies in folic acid or B12.
Consider Their Age
At 60 and 70, it’s worthwhile to encourage some dietary changes to support cardiovascular health with leaner proteins and whole grains—but at 90? It’s not likely to make a difference if they stop eating the bacon they’ve enjoyed for the past 90 years.
“Clients come to see me about their aging parents, and nutrition becomes this sore spot and focal point of the relationship. Then, the parent avoids the kid because they know they are going to get fussed at, or they start lying about what they’re eating or not eating. We want to avoid that,” cautions Kimball. “Focus on enjoying time with them and don’t let the food issues become battles that then put a negative umbrella over the relationship.”