April 15, 2008

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I’m Not Hungry!

Is it one of life’s little tricks that ultimately places you at the table with a beloved parent who is barely touching – or consuming – their food? An ironic reversal of the roles you both assumed years ago when you were a child and interested in anything but the food on your dinner plate.

Unfortunately, when an older person reaches their later years, nutrition plays an extremely important part in maintaining their health and their well-being. And an 80-year-old’s metabolism may well be much less forgiving in terms of its nutritional requirements than an 8-year-old’s.

I’ve experienced the full spectrum of nutritional needs as I watched my parents progress from their early retirement years to their respective final curtains at ages 87 and 96. Initially, meals were a social occasion that they anticipated and enjoyed fully. Then perhaps the sameness of their surroundings, the predictability of their menu, or maybe even the less pleasant facts of aging set in. (They were in a retirement living community, with varied levels of care, determined by the residents’ capabilities and needs.) And suddenly food and eating were not as pleasurable as they had once been.

I couldn’t join them for every meal, of course, but when we could dine together – and especially for family events and holidays – I made a point of taking them out of their residence to enjoy some home-cooked or restaurant cuisine. At first, we were a little disillusioned. They devoured their food as though they had not been adequately fed, and we had a gnawing suspicion that their facility’s offerings were no longer what they had been, portions were inadequate, or the food was not well prepared in terms of taste or variety.

A careful review with their nutritionist and the dining management proved this to be wrong, and we ultimately decided that they just enjoyed new surroundings and being with family. Yet, after a time even this subsided and we felt almost like parents of small children who show no interest in their food. Cajoling and encouragement were no use, and we began to accept the standard reply, “I’m not hungry.” or “I have no appetite.”

In doing so, however, we could not fail to see their already slender physiques slowly but steadily tending to become thin and even frail. Food did not seem to be the solution. I met with their physician and the nurses supervising their care and they also expressed a growing concern. Ultimately, we seemed to arrive at what proved a happy solution for both my parents – and one that lasted until their very last days. A good-tasting nutritional supplement.

Many such products exist, and it may be a matter of trial and error until you find the preparation that an older person enjoys and can easily swallow and digest. The good news is that they don’t require any special preparation, the time needed for consuming them is brief, and they deliver most or all of the nutritional requirements that they may be missing otherwise. They can be purchased in bulk, stored easily, and are generally very portable so that they can be taken and enjoyed virtually anywhere.

I know, because they became a way of life for each of my folks, even as they declined in other ways. But never again did I feel guilty or concerned about their nutrition. Their appetites and their taste for food changed, but their dietary requirements didn’t. And never again did I hear the words, “I’m just not hungry anymore”.

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