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Eating Disorders Among the Elderly

Posted on: 2013 12 31

Eating Disorders Among the Elderly

WRITTEN BY CHRIS COOPER, CFP® | 30 DECEMBER 2013

 
elderly eating disordersEating disorders are more common among older adults than many people realize.

Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are typically thought of as conditions that affect young people. But eating disorders among elderly adults are a real and often unrecognized problem. If you have an elderly loved one, it’s important to be aware of the signs of an eating disorder, the causes of the condition, its possible consequences, and potential treatments. Causes of Eating Disorders Among the Elderly Eating disorders among the elderly can have many causes. While younger people with anorexia or bulimia often struggle with a distorted body image, the underlying issues may be somewhat different in older adults. Changes in taste or small, other psychological conditions (like depression), cognitive problems, the death of a loved one (especially someone who the person shared meals with), loneliness and a desire to regain a sense of control (especially among people who are living in nursing homes) can all contribute to eating disorders in elderly people. In severe cases, refusing to eat may be a form of "silent suicide." Elderly women are more likely than elderly men to suffer from an eating disorder, but the condition occurs in people of both genders. Patience and compassion are key when dealing with an older adult with an eating disorder. [Tweet this ] Recognizing Eating Disorders in Elderly Patients Frequently, eating disorders in elderly patients are not recognized either by health care providers or a patient's family. People may simply not notice the person's weight loss, may assume that weight loss is related to other health issues, or that it is simply a natural consequence of aging. Of course, an older person's weight loss is not always due to an eating disorder. Poverty (not being able to afford food), limited mobility (not being able to get to the store to purchase food), medication side effects or a related medical condition can all cause weight loss in older adults. Once you've realized that an older person is losing weight, determining the exact cause is important, since that will dictate how the problem is treated.  Identifying and managing an eating disorder in an elderly person is especially important since the weight loss can seriously compromise a person's health, especially if they have other conditions. In serious cases, an eating disorder will cause death. Treating and Managing Eating Disorders in Elderly Patients If a doctor or other health care professional has determined that an elderly person is suffering from an eating disorder, proper treatment and management of the disease is essential. Usually, it is best to treat whatever underlying issue is triggering the refusal to eat (such as depression related to the loss of a loved one). Becoming aggressive or hostile, or attempting to force feed a person will often not have the intended effect, and may even make the condition worse. Being supportive and understanding will typically lead to more success, especially if it's coupled with the support of a health care professional who has experience treating eating disorders in elderly patients. Some specific strategies that may help an elderly person with an eating disorder include:

  • Lifting dietary restrictions on consumption of high fat of high salt food
  • Adjusting the person's diet so that they are served more of the foods they like
  • Serving the person several small meals throughout the day, rather than just a few big meals
  • Using additives to improve the smell, appearance or taste of food, especially if the person has lost some of the sense of smell or taste
  • Encouraging the person to socialize and be active, including eating with others
  • Making sure the person participates in rehab or other activities to build strength and endurance

Patience and compassion are key when dealing with an older adult with an eating disorder. Working closely with the individual's medical team will also be helpful in creating a plan that allows the person with an eating disorder to improve their health. The important thing is to realize that eating disorders are not a normal part of the aging process, and that they can have serious health consequences. Fortunately, eating disorders in older adults can be treated, thus improving a person's health and hopefully allowing them to live a longer life.

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