What are the warning signs of poor nutrition in the elderly?

"My 81-year-old father lives alone about 300 miles away from me with no other immediate family members close by. He has been caring for himself without a problem but recently when I visited, his clothing looked baggy on him and there were very few items in his refrigerator. He ate well when I was there but I am concerned about what is going on when I am not. Any suggestions about what I should do?"

The risk for poor nutrition increases with age for a variety of reasons. Changes in smell, ill-fitting dentures, disease, depression, confusion and memory loss, taking multiple medications, substance abuse, being physically unable to shop and cook and being socially isolated are some of the factors that can impact an elder's ability to maintain a healthy nutritional status. And, as I am sure you are aware, good nutrition is vital to good health and so requires particular attention in the elderly.

You are very astute to have picked up some subtle clues that, indeed, raise questions about your dad's nutritional status. Ill-fitting clothing may indicate weight loss which, if unintentional, deserves a closer look to determine causes. Sit down with him and express your concerns. In talking with him, you may discover he simply has trouble getting to the grocery store. However, you may find it is a more complex problem that requires input from a health care professional. If you suspect he has lost 10 pounds or more in the past 6 months, have your dad see his health care provider to explore possible medical causes.

When you are caring for an elderly relative at a distance, it is never to early to set up a caregiving network of formal support (community agencies and service providers) and informal support (friends, neighbors, family members). The Area Agency on Aging (AAA) in your father's area can provide information about home-delivered meal programs, senior centers providing hot lunches, and any volunteer services that may exist to help with such things as grocery shopping. Also, the Department of Social Services may also know of services and resources for you to hook up with. To find the number for the Area Agency on Aging in your father's area, call the Eldercare locator at 1-800-677-1116.

If there's an Eldercare topic you'd like to see addressed in "Caregiver Query", e-mail Kathy Fletcher at krf8d@virginia.edu. Remember, any information provided is not a substitute for consultation with your health care provider.