08 August 2022

How can we respond to the changing nutritional needs of the elderly?


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When it comes to average life expectancy in France, two statistics from the past 60 years are of particular importance according to the French Centre for the Observation of Society: 

  • For men, it has increased by 14 years to reach 79.5 years
  • For women, it has also increased by 14 years, to 85.4 years
  • In 2019, men’s life expectancy was the same as women’s in the 1980s.

Dehydration and malnutrition are risks to which the majority of elderly people are exposed. Although physical activity and serenity can conceal the effects of age, their nutrition has to be monitored. Between individuals who are healthy, have diabetes or other illnesses, and people growing naturally weaker due to their age, it is important to be adaptable.

Identifying seniors who only pick at their food and addressing the issue quickly

It is essential to monitor the elderly in order to reduce the risk of exposure to malnutrition and the onset of illnesses associated with weight loss. Some establishments, like nursing homes and retirement homes, have implemented appropriate programmes for recognizing people who are susceptible to malnutrition, for whom food nostalgia can be one of the causes. This situation was the subject of scientific experimentation in Burgundy, run by Dijon’s university hospital and INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research).

By closely monitoring a “control” retirement home and an “experimental” retirement home for six months, the researchers were able to develop an appreciable ability to detect nutrition problems and weight loss, and then alert the staff. With this kind of programme, it will be much easier to determine if a senior is or is not experiencing food nostalgia going forward. In other words, if they are losing their appetite, not because of a particular pathology, but due to the fact that they no longer experience the same pleasure at mealtime as they did as a child. This will then facilitate the adoption of solutions to motivate elderly people to feed themselves.

Restoring seniors’ desire to eat

Psychologically speaking, the elderly are more willing to eat dishes that recall their childhoods and pleasant memories. In fact, eating is an action with strong cultural connotations that can easily be linked to a feeling of nostalgia. Dining on familiar foods and dishes is particularly reassuring to elderly people, who naturally feel vulnerable because of their health and/or diminished physical capacity.

Cooks can benefit from drawing inspiration for their menus from traditional, regional dishes or even the simplest childhood preparations like waffles and pancakes. The sense of nostalgia that is felt when biting into an old-fashioned dish remains a fundamentally positive experience and can help to boost self-confidence, which can only be a good thing for seniors. On the savoury side, certain timeless recipes are especially appreciated by seniors and are sure to readily whet their appetites. There are staples like soft-boiled eggs that also have the advantage of being edible by anyone, including people suffering from chewing problems.

”Home-style” comfort food

While, from a technical point of view, it may be necessary to revamp dishes by adding spices and fats, it is also a good idea to work on the psychological aspect of food and how elderly people see it. The goal is to make them feel perfectly at ease by serving them meals that are similar to what they once had at home, and especially during their childhood years.

It will be particularly useful to bank on the naturally sociable nature of certain dishes. A beef bourguignon for example or a blanquette of veal can be reminiscent of wonderful family meals from younger days. Above all, don’t underestimate the power of the symbolic function of food, which begins to take root at a very young age. As a result, the dishes served become more than just food that has to be ingested to meet physiological needs: they create are real opportunity to look back on strong memories and bring the past to life, like Proust’s famous madeleines.

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