The Anatomy of an Appetite: Aging and Our Relationship to Food

Miriam Zucker, LMSW, ACSW, C-ASWCM

Many of life’s events involve food. From the grandest of celebrations to the smallest of gatherings, there is always a place for food. As an Aging Life Care Professional®, I recall a wonderful get together this care manager had organized to celebrate a client’s birthday, her ninetieth… I thought.  She so enjoyed her birthday cake. It was only after I re-did the math that I realized my enthusiasm was premature; Dorothy had another twelve months to go to before she reached her 90th year.

Dorothy took great pleasure in eating her birthday cake. But such enthusiasm for food is not shared by all adult seniors.  There are a variety of factors that may contribute to a decrease in appetite: the side effects of a medication, dentures that do not fit, loss of taste, feelings of loneliness as a senior sits down to a table for one and a myriad of medical conditions.  A wince as an older adult bites into an apple or a change in appetite after the start of a new medication are symptoms that may require a visit to the dentist or a call to the prescribing doctor.

The potential for resolving the nutritional problem described above are far more likely than the changes an adult senior experiences as the end of life approaches.  He or she may lessen their food intake and ultimately refuse all nourishment. Family members are justly concerned, confused and frequently feel guilty.  Often, they fear they are starving a loved one to death if food, liquid or some form of artificial nutrition is not provided.  For an adult senior with advanced dementia, the scenario is made more complex.  As the dementia progresses it impacts on that part of the brain that controls swallowing. The chance of choking increases. In either of these scenarios it is important to recognize as the end of life nears the body adjusts to the slowing down process and minimal amounts of nutrition or liquids are needed, if at all. Now the focus becomes comfort care. Moistening the mouth with a special sponge, applying lip balm or offering a small amount of water through a straw, teaspoon or syringe.

Aging Life Care Professionals understand that while parents may have left specific directives for no heroic measures, a daughter may find it too cruel to discontinue nourishment or fluids. A son may hope for a last-minute miracle or a spouse may feel that only time will dictate when to say the last good-bye.  As Aging Life Care Professionals, it is our role to hold the hand of our client and reach out our other hand to support the family in whatever their decision may be.

Miriam Zucker, LMSW, ACSW, C-ASWCM, is the founder of Directions in Aging based in New Rochelle, New York. For over two decades she has assisted families in customizing plans of care and developing effective strategies to meet the needs of older adults. She has recently been appointed to the board of directors of New Rochelle Cares, a non-for profit organization devoted to helping senior adults live safely and fully at home.

This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute, nor is it intended to be a substitute for, professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Information on this blog does not necessarily reflect official positions of the Aging Life Care Association® and is provided “as is” without warranty. Always consult with a qualified professional with any particular questions you may have regarding your or a family member’s needs.