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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published April 10 2011

Bursack: Appetite, nutrition for elders a concern

Dear Carol: Is it safe, or even helpful, to add powdered supplements to my grandfather’s food to help him gain weight? My grandfather is 92 years old, and has been losing weight the past few months. He just picks at his food most of the time, but when the ice cream comes out he gobbles it up. His weight is down to 115 pounds, so at this point, if he eats ice cream all day we are fine with that. We’re just wondering how to sneak some nutrition into his food. – Rhonda

Dear Rhonda: To start, I’d check with your grandfather’s doctor to see if there’s a health concern that is being overlooked. Your doctor may be able to suggest a nutritionist to give you advice tailored to your grandfather’s condition, as well.

I do know from personal experience that people with health issues can have appetite problems. Loss of appetite was a big concern with my mom as her health declined. Her weight dropped into the 80-pound range. Though she was a small woman, this was far too low even for her.

My approach was to bring her favorite foods to the nursing home. I kept an ice bucket in her room so food stayed cold. She enjoyed fresh fruit, so I made daily stops at the grocery store to get in-season fruits. She also enjoyed cold, fresh shrimp with sauce, so I brought that fairly often for her lunch. Olives, for some reason, appealed to her. So try to experiment with different foods, one at a time. You never know what may appeal to him.

Remember, too, that there’s a big difference between encouraging him to eat, and trying to force food. Keep portion size in mind. A plate piled with food can overwhelm the senses of sight and smell, as well as make the person feel that he or she is wasting food if it’s left uneaten.

Personally, I believe in supplements. Like you, I see no reason why someone who is 92 years old and underweight can’t have as much ice cream as he wants, if he can digest it. Your idea to add supplements seems wise to me. Check with the doctor or a nutritionist, but unless the supplements interfere with his medications, they should be helpful.

Ideally, we’d all get our nutrition from food, but someone like your dad can’t possibly get his nutritional needs met from the food he can eat. I think your doctor will give you a green light.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at arol@mindingourelders.com.