A balanced diet plays a crucial role in health and wellness for everyone, but it’s especially essential for older adults. As we age, we’re more at risk for having nutritional deficiencies for many reasons, including:
- Loss of taste sensations that result in not eating enough or eating too much of one type of food, like sweets or fast food
- Medical conditions that can affect the way we eat
- Physical impairments that can make shopping and cooking more difficult
Seniors who don’t get the nutrients they need are at greater risk for many health problems and might not be able to live as independently as they would like. But you can help your aging loved one get the nutrients they need from their diet and supplements, in addition to keeping an eye out for warning signs of nutritional deficiencies and knowing when it’s time to get help.
Key Vitamins and Nutrients for Older Adults
Older adults’ nutritional needs depend on each person’s medical requirements. However, there are a few key vitamins and nutrients that nearly all seniors need as part of a healthy diet.
The B-vitamins help your body get energy from the food you eat and help in making healthy red blood cells. These vitamins include:
- B1 (thiamine)
- B2 (riboflavin)
- B3 (niacin)
- B5 (pantothenic acid)
- B6 (pyridoxine)
- B7 (biotin)
- B9 (folate or folic acid)
- B12 (cobalamin)
All of the B-vitamins are important, but B12 has a number of important benefits, from boosting the immune system to keeping the nervous system in good shape. Older adults can get B12 in many kinds of food, such as:
- Dairy, if your loved one can tolerate it
- Fish, including salmon
- Red meat, including pork, though older adults should only eat red meat in moderation because of other risks involved with high red meat intake
Older adults, especially women, are at increased risk of bone loss as they age. We see many older clients who have a slouch in their back because of bone and joint issues. Although some of a person’s risk depends on family history and genetic background, it can also depend on the amount of calcium in their diet.
Having a calcium-rich diet can help your loved one reduce or avoid bone loss. As your loved one ages, they need to increase the amount of calcium they take in. That’s because we tend to absorb less calcium from our food as we age, so we need to take in more to make sure our bones get enough of this vital nutrient.
The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements recommends the following daily amounts of calcium for older adults:
- Adult men 51 to 70: 1,000 milligrams
- Adult women 51 to 70: 1,200 milligrams
- All adults 71 and older: 1,200 milligrams
Dairy often comes to mind as the main source of calcium. While dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese are a great source of calcium, lactose intolerance and other medical issues may prevent your loved one from being able to incorporate these items into their diet. If that’s the case, make sure they regularly eat a variety of other calcium-rich foods, such as:
- Seafood, including salmon and shrimp
- Green leafy vegetables, such as collard greens, broccoli, and kale
- Foods fortified with calcium, such as cereal, orange juice, and almond or soy milk
Vitamin D is sometimes called the “sun vitamin” because we get it naturally through exposure to sunlight. However, it’s not unusual for older adults to need extra vitamin D if they don’t get outside much, if they live in areas that don’t get much sunlight, or if they have a deficiency to vitamin D.
If your loved one doesn’t get enough vitamin D, they can be at greater risk for health conditions ranging from diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis and even multiple sclerosis. In addition to healthy sun exposure — about 15 minutes of mid-day sunlight at least twice per week, according to the Cleveland Clinic — several foods are good sources of this vital nutrient. These foods include:
- Beef liver
- Egg yolks
- Foods fortified with vitamin D, such as milk, cereal and orange juice
Magnesium, like calcium, plays an important role in bone health. It is also important to heart health. People who don’t get enough magnesium are at increased risk for many health problems, such as:
- Fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that involves pain in the muscles, tendons, and joints
- Heart disease, including high blood pressure
- Inflammation issues
- Type 2 diabetes
In addition, getting enough magnesium can also help your loved one sleep better at night. That’s because magnesium helps balance the nervous system.
Magnesium is included in a number of the foods we’ve already discussed, such as green leafy vegetables, dairy products, and some breakfast cereals. Your loved one can also incorporate magnesium into their diet by eating foods such as:
- Legumes, including green peas, lentils, peanuts, and pinto beans
- Whole grains
Omega-3 fatty acids, also known as omega-3 fatty oils, are well-known for their benefits to brain health. Omega-3s can also help reduce the risk of strokes and heart disease.
Several types of fish are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon and tuna. Look for cold-water fish to include in your loved one’s diet, such as mackerel, herring, and sardines, as these have high omega-3 levels. If your loved one isn’t a fish fan, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds also contain omega-3s.
Multivitamins: When Diet Isn’t Enough
It’s nearly always best for your aging loved one to get the vitamins and nutrients they need from the foods they eat. However, this isn’t always possible due to health issues, lack of certain foods in their area, or even personal tastes. In these cases, a multivitamin is a great option.
There are many different multivitamins on the market, which can make it challenging to find the best option. Work with your loved one’s doctor and/or pharmacist to find one that meets their needs.
Some older adults already take a number of pills each day and don’t want to take another, especially one that’s as large as some multivitamins are. If this is the case, a liquid or powdered multivitamin might be a better option. Liquid multivitamins can easily go into a morning glass of juice, while powdered options can go into a milkshake for dessert.
In many cases, it’s not the type of multivitamin that’s the problem — it’s remembering to take it. Setting daily reminders on smartphones, tablets, or smart speakers (such as Google Home or Amazon Echo) can be helpful to remind older adults and their caregivers that it’s time for a vitamin. Work with your loved one on the best time for them to take their multivitamin each day.
Signs of Nutritional Deficiency in Older Adults
It’s important to keep an eye out for warning signs that your aging loved one isn’t getting the vitamins and nutrients they need. Older adults with cognitive issues, depression, or social isolation may show little or no interest in meals, so keeping an eye on appetite can clue you in on something larger that’s going on.
It’s also important to watch out for weight changes. In some disease processes, the body loses some of its ability to absorb food and the nutrients it contains, which can lead to weight loss. Significant weight loss can lead to poorly fitting dentures, which can cause mouth pain and/or a lack of enjoyment of the food they eat. That often leads to not eating enough, which just leads to more weight loss — a vicious cycle that requires medical attention.
On the other end of the spectrum, weight gain from heart failure and other heart conditions, typically in the form of fluid weight, can lead to eating problems for older adults. Extra weight on the chest and around the lungs can mean your loved may experience shortness of breath while they eat, or they may have to wear oxygen during meals. This can lead to needing more calories to breathe than they get from their food, or they may skip meals to avoid feeling uncomfortable.
Even changes in taste as your loved one ages can lead to nutritional issues. The tongue’s taste buds lose some of their ability to taste as we age, which means older adults often prefer foods with a lot of flavor, such as sugar-filled sweets. They may gravitate toward cake, candy, and cookies over more nutritious foods because they can taste the sweets better. If this is the case for your loved one, talk about steps you can take to make their food taste better, such as adding a honey glaze to salmon.
Get Help for Your Loved One’s Nutritional Needs
It’s often a challenge for family caregivers to manage older adults’ nutritional issues on their own. Working with your loved one’s doctor or pharmacist, as well as a nutritionist, and any other members of their medical care team is important to ensure they get the nutrients they need.
The expert caregivers at BrightStar Care can provide an added layer of security for your loved one. As part of our nurse-led care, a registered nurse oversees the care plan for each of our clients to make certain that their needs are being met. Our nurses are trained to review clients’ medications to confirm that there are no negative interactions with their vitamins, supplements, and dietary plans.
Our care team can help streamline your loved one’s nutritional support to make it work better and more efficiently for them in many areas, such as:
- Ensuring they eat regularly
- Helping them select healthy foods
- Preparing meals and helping them eat if necessary
- Helping them with vitamin/medication reminders
Our in-home care professionals can help bring consistency to older adults who may be used to a more structured meal schedule with their families but who aren’t getting that now. We offer various levels of support, from companion care to care from a certified nursing assistant, all under the oversight of one of our registered nurses. We’re here to help your loved one get the best care.
You may feel overwhelmed at having to manage your aging loved one’s nutritional needs, but you don’t have to deal with these issues alone. Call 866-618-7827 or contact a BrightStar Care® home care agency near you to learn more about how we can help your loved one get the vitamins and nutrients they need.