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April 28, 2012


Tips to help stave off malnutrition in older Australians

by Prue Miller

For a variety of reasons seniors too often suffer from malnutrition – not all of them because of sickness.  Just this week figures release suggested one in three elderly Australian receiving home care, are at risk of malnutrition.

The mind boggles about what the figures might say if all elderly were included.

I remember all too well my honest to goodness embarrassment when a doctor told our family that my  elderly Mother was malnourished. Guilt! Yet, I had no idea. Underneath her many layers of clothing, most of it lose, my mum was not much more than 45 kilos. Wow. What a shock! My father too had trouble with food. And I have seen many, many patients with problems.

Here is a check list of things to consider, when food is not the pleasure it once was.

  • Have a meal together – not Mum or Dad watching you have a coffee and a biscuit as you fly out the door. Sit down for a meal and watch what they eat. It may be that company increases the appetite.
  • Are soft foods being eaten, but chewable foods left behind?
  • Does your parent waive off the idea of a meal, preferring to have a drink, and promising to eat later?
  • Are their clothes loose?
  • Do their dentures click?
  • What’s in the fridge? Much? Check the use by dates.
  • Do they choke on their food? Or on their drink?

This is why these observations are important.

If you are waived off a meal, but encouraged to have a scotch instead, this may be a sign that alcohol, a known appetite suppressant is having a n effect on your parent. Try and change the schedule around a bit so food comes before drink.                                                                                                                                 

If you hear their dentures click, there’s a good chance that chewing is not easy and that’s another reason to skip meals. Get your parent to the dentist or denture clinic. Of course gum disease and bad natural teeth are also a concern – when was the last trip to the dentist? Eating soft foods is also a tip off on that one.

No food in the fridge? Why not? Do your parents have enough money to buy food – don’t laugh, it is a real concern. Many of us do not know the financial situation of our parents – we just assume they’re okay. But prices of everything are rising, and bills need paying. Gently find out, without alarming anyone, if they are okay financially.

If they are struggling,  try and find a solution. 

If there is no financial assistance available, look at getting Meals on Wheels or a similar low cost service. If they protest, remind them that malnutrition leads to a whole bag of trouble including illness, and accidents (such as falling).

If none of these issues is obvious, consider this: have they changed medications lately? Some do have unpleasant side effects, which many elderly people just accept without even mentioning this to their chemist or GP. There may be an alternative medication.

If you notice, or hear them speak of, choking on their food then here is a further issue to investigate.  Losing the ability to swallow confidently or consistently is called dysphagia (from the Latin meaning unable to eat). Nobody likes to choke – it is terrifying.

A simple solution is not to eat. It’s not a long-term solution though is it? Sometimes it is caused by an obstruction in the throat – but often it is more a mechanical malfunction.

A swallow is a hugely complex action, and it just takes one group of muscles to become slack, or the brain to become a little confused, and the event becomes frightful.

Combine this with the growing necessity to down a load of pills everyday, most of which get stuck or thrown up,  and pretty soon you have a person who does not trust themselves to swallow. This can be investigated by a speech pathologist, who will have tricks up their sleeve for alleviating the severity of the condition. 

(Do your parents know how good frozen meals are these days? Make sure they do! It’s a handy and easy way to knock up a quick meal.)


☐ Check finances – if fridge content is depleted

☐ Make a dentist of denture clinic appointment

☐ Encourage a new eat then drink routine

☐ Get a GP referral to a speech pathologist if choking is the issue.


If a person feels that a pill is ‘stuck’ half way down – try eating a small buttered piece of bread … to push the blighter out of the way. Failing that a warm drink slowly sipped may help. 


Try putting pills in teaspoons of yoghurt – it helps lubricate the mechanics. Hate yoghurt? Try jam – but not toooo sweet as that can cause the throat to spasm as well. When in doubt, go to the GP!

1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Prudence Forsythe
    Apr 29 2012

    I’m sure that the metal core jam sessions help the writing process.
    As usual, very informative and accurate.


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