We often hear in the media about the importance of healthy eating. However, rarely do we hear about its importance in later life. However, what we eat becomes even more important as we age. Our diet can impact our cognitive function, determine our energy levels and help us fight off illness. Indeed, eating well can be seen as vital in our care of the elderly.
We are not talking about dieting. However, we are talking about a healthy balanced diet tailored for the needs of this age group. Menus should be focused on fresh, varied and healthy food which tastes amazing. Fortunately, at Eastleigh Care Homes in North Devon and Somerset, we are spoilt by exceptional chefs who create impressive meals which tick all the right boxes.
Choosing a healthy and balanced diet can bring tangible health benefits. It boosts immunity. A healthy diet will also help to keep weight in check, helping to reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 Diabetes. It is also very important for preventing bone loss and degeneration. It has been shown that people who eat a diet rich in omega-3 may be able to decrease their risk of Alzheimer’s.
In our society, food is often seen as a social endeavour. We often shop with others, or have benefited from family meals around the table where conversation has flowed. Part of the difficulty around healthy eating for older people can be their loss of the social element of eating.
This is one of the many benefits of using a care home. Whilst it is possible for the individual to take meals in their own room if they wish, they also benefit from the social element of dining with others. Without the stress and worry of cooking the meal, they can benefit from joining together in the dining room.
At Eastleigh Care Homes in Devon and Somerset we also welcome family members to join us at mealtimes from time to time. This is a valuable opportunity to socialise together, and see for yourself just how delicious yet healthy our meals are.
Central to a healthy eating approach is to avoid overly processed foods. Instead, choose food which is minimally processed and in its natural form.
The older person’s diet should be rich in a varied selection of fruit and vegetables. A good rule of thumb is to think about the fruit and vegetables being eaten as needing to represent the colour of the rainbow. There should be plenty of anti-oxidant rich leafy greens such as broccoli and kale, but there should also be orange carrots, yellow peppers, red berries and more.
Calcium rich foods, as with young children, become more important again in later life. This is to prevent osteoporosis. A calcium rich diet will also help to prevent fractures, which is a real risk due to older people being more prone to falls. Yoghurts, cheese, milk, almonds and broccoli are all rich in calcium.
Protein within the diet should be varied. For elderly individuals, protein is vital for energy and helping boost mental health. It’s good to have a range of protein in your diet including meat, fish, eggs, seeds and beans.
Unless recommended by a doctor, those in later life should not be following low fat diets. The right fats, such as fish oil and olive oil, can help the body and brain. However, as throughout life, saturated fats should be more limited.
Dietary fibre, easily available from green vegetables, can help with bowel regularity. Those in care homes tend to have limited mobility and as such can suffer with less efficient digestion. A diet rich in fibre will help to combat this. Wholegrains in bread, breakfast cereal and crackers can also help.
Many older people do not drink enough. This can be particularly problematic because it can lead to urinary tract infections, and can even cause confusion to worsen. It’s very important that the elderly are therefore encouraged to drink water and other fluids regularly.
The elderly can often limit how much they drink because they are concerned about being able to access the toilet in time. Understanding of this is important, but the dangers of not drinking enough make this crucial to address.
Water should be offered with every meal. However, other drinks such as diluted cordial or fruit juice may encourage someone who is reluctant to drink. For those who seem particularly reluctant to drink, it can be useful to offer liquid in other forms such as in soups, stews, fruit salad or jelly.
Providing a healthy balanced diet should ensure that the vitamin and nutrient requirements of an individual are met. However, there are a few vitamins we should be particularly aware of for this age group.
Vitamin B is harder for us to absorb after the age of 50 due to changes in the production of gastric acid. Indeed, a vitamin B12 deficiency affects 10-15% of those over 60. It may be necessary to use a supplement or use fortified foods.
The other problem area is often vitamin D. Firstly it is harder for older skin to synthesise vitamin D from the sun. This age group also often spend much of their lives indoors. Furthermore, vitamin D is notoriously difficult to get from your diet alone. Therefore, if you are concerned that an elderly individual may have a vitamin D deficiency, you should follow the recommendations of a medical professional.
As we get older, there are other changes which affect our eating too. Our metabolism slows with age. We are likely to be less active. Our sense of taste can change and we may have difficulties with our teeth and eyesight which can affect our enjoyment of food. Certain medications can interact with what we eat.
There are also lifestyle factors which may affect an elderly person’s diet. Loneliness and depression can cause either under or over eating. Physical mobility and dexterity problems can make preparing and eating food difficult. Again, this can be an invaluable benefit of living in a residential home.