For most of our adult lives, our bodies are predictable machines. Year after year, we fuel them with the same favorite foods, catering to our cravings, confident that the only adverse effect will be an overly full belly. All of that changes, however, as we approach our golden years. With the onset of old age, the standard meals that have been fixtures on our menus for decades can suddenly become health hazards. For me, this became painfully apparent only recently, when I saw my elderly father’s nutritional needs experience a major shift.
When I first made the decision to care for my elderly father more than 10 years ago, I pretty much gave Dad free reign of the kitchen. He ate all of the dishes he’d always enjoyed, including spicy foods and pre-packaged high-sodium meals. But after we contracted the services of Dad’s current private caregiver, I realized I’d been doing him a big disservice by failing to closely monitor his meals.
Based on what I’ve learned about the changing dietary needs of the elderly, I’ve compiled some tips for other baby boomers who are caring for an aging parent. Whenever possible, incorporate these strategies to increase the overall health and well-being of your “patient”:
Watch the fat. Since elderly people tend to be less active and don’t exercise as much, they start trading muscle tone for added body fat. This can increase their risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. I make sure Dad’s meals don’t contain too much fat, and that he gets some form of physical activity a few times a week.
Keep it balanced. As our parents age, it’s more important than ever that they get all of the vitamins and nutrients they need-especially calcium, which helps to ensure bone health. Plan a menu that includes all of the food groups: lean meats, fruits and vegetables, milk and dairy, and breads and grains.
Go dry. Seniors need a steady supply of calcium to prevent bone fragility. Nonfat dry milk is an excellent calcium source, and also contains plenty of vitamins A and D. Use it as a smart milk substitute for most any meal. Dry milk remains fresh for several months when stored in an airtight glass container.
Limit the sweets. Cookies, cakes, and other fatty desserts are empty-calorie treats with little to no nutritional value. Do your best to reduce the frequency of these treats for your aging patient.
Meet daily requirements. Older adults need the recommended amounts of essential vitamins and minerals based on their ages and lifestyles. I plan Dad’s meals to make sure he’s getting plenty of zinc, iron, and fiber through lean red meats, dried beans, seasonal produce, and whole-grain breads.
Control your inventory. It can be tempting to take advantage of discounts by buying in bulk, but then you’ll have to find room to store it all. Plus, the surplus could go to waste if it’s not used before the expiration date. Buy only what you know will get used. When you must purchase foods in larger quantities, divvy it up into individual containers and freeze it to be consumed later.
Turn one meal into four. Cook for larger portions and then save the leftovers for future meals. Some foods, such as lasagna, meatloaf, and casseroles, are better suited for reheating than others.
Master smart storage. To extend the freshness of non-refrigerated foods, keep them in tightly sealed glass mason jars. For best results, put them in the freezer for a night before transferring them to the pantry.
This storage solution works well for pasta, rice, flour, cereal, dried milk, and other shelved staples.
With some careful planning and the guidance of a trusted doctor or caregiver, you can help ensure that your aging parent receives fresh, healthy meals that provide both satisfaction and sustenance.
Mr. Priore is an internet researcher, scientist and author. In over 24 years he has completed over 500 reports on various topics. He now has a blog that offers informative lessons learned while caring for his elderly father. http://www.billpriore.com