When people think of eating disorders, the most common image that comes to mind is that of a teenage girl plagued by body image issues, leading down a dangerous path to look thin. While this may be the most common situation, it belies an important fact—that the elderly, too, are common victims. In fact, the majority of deaths from anorexia (78 percent in 2001) are among senior citizens, not the younger victims whom one would probably expect.
There are numerous reasons why a senior citizen may not maintain a healthy diet, and indeed, a loss of appetite is normal as we age. Malnutrition, however, is often related to another problem. The individual may find eating to be difficult due to problems with their teeth, digestion or as a side effect of medication. They may simply forget to eat due to memory loss or dementia. Perhaps they skip meals for other reasons, such as a lack of money or the difficulty involved in cooking.
In many cases, the problem is psychological. Eating disorders in the elderly may hold the same symptoms as those in younger victims, but the causes seem to be different in several ways. Like younger sufferers, many seniors develop eating disorders in an attempt to feel in control. The elderly often feel the effects of their bodies failing, and loss of autonomy to loved ones or health care providers can be humiliating even when it is well meaning. Sufferers often turn to their diet as one of the few things that they can control, only to be controlled by the diet instead. It can also begin as a form of subtle protest against others.
Furthermore, many seniors are just depressed, with loss of appetite as a symptom. The afflicted may not be able to muster the energy that they need to get up and eat. This situation is especially likely if the individual lives alone. Aside from the lack of a support system to help them through their problems, it also makes it easier for them to keep their problem a secret, and eating disorders thrive on secrecy. People usually consider eating to be a social activity—eating alone can seem like an unpleasant chore. Not eating may also be a cry for help.
Because the elderly often have other health factors that can cause weight loss and discourage eating, identifying a legitimate eating disorder can be difficult and because of these other health factors, they can be more serious. A senior sufferer does not necessarily have to look emaciated or pale for there to be a health risk, since their malnourishment may contribute to other problems. Signs include easy bruising, dental problems and difficulty healing. Of course, refusal to eat or frequent vomiting are also signs of a disorder.
One should try to monitor how their older loved ones are eating, asking them and any others who may have a chance of knowing. If they do not seem to be eating enough, try to encourage them. Make things easy by helping them buy and prepare food and offering to eat with them. If you suspect the situation may be serious, talk to a doctor or any other authorities (nursing home staff, etc.) who may be able to help.
If you feel that assistance with dietary needs, meal preparation, and planning would be helpful for you or your loved one, and would like to learn about our Companion Care Services, please visit us online or call your local CareFocus Companion office to learn more.