February 27, 2020

Why Seniors Refuse to Eat and What You Can Do About It

As people grow older, often their metabolism slows down and they begin to eat less. However, there are many times when a patient refuses to eat and it can be dangerous for their health. Caregivers are often faced with this challenge when providing care.

There are several different factors that can cause a loss of interest in food:

  • Lack of energy and tiredness from lack of sleep
  • Change of taste buds
  • Health conditions and dementia symptoms
  • Depression and loneliness
  • Medication side effects

However, minimizing the effects of poor nutrition habits is always important.  With this, it is critical to mention and consult any underlying health symptoms with a physician.

What to look out for and when you should be concerned:

  • No physical activities and low metabolic rate
  • Change of sense of smell and taste
  • Dental or gastrointestinal problems

The taste or appetite change also occur in conjunction with some serious illnesses, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease and dementia or Parkinson’s disease
  • Head and neck cancers
  • Mouth and throat infections or periodontal disease
  • Salivary gland dysfunction
  • Thyroid disorders

Any unexplained changes, like unexpected weight gain, loss or general malaise, should be immediately checked out with a physician.

How can you stimulate an appetite for an elderly person?

There are several approaches you can take so that your patients get enough nutrition:

#1. Note medication side effects.

The loss of appetite can be caused by medications which the senior is currently taking. First of all, consult the physician to make things clear.

#2. Don’t increase the portion size, instead increase the nutrient density.

There are ways to increase the healthy calories in smaller portions by simply adding:

  • Avocado
  • Finely chopped meat, cheese, egg
  • Olive oil
  • Peanut or other nut butters
  • Soft cheeses like ricotta or mascarpone

In order to save some time, consider cooking in large batches and store it in individual containers so it would be easy to reheat.

#3. Stop using utensils

You need to help elders to eat more easily, so serving foods that can be eaten without any utensils cause using a spoon can be difficult and frustrating.

Examples of finger picking foods:

  • Chicken strips or nuggets
  • Fish sticks
  • Veggies like carrots, broccoli, bell pepper strips, or cucumber pieces
  • Meatballs

#4. Have different easy-eating snacks available

Make plenty of healthy and easy-to-eat snacks available and full of enough calories into them.

For example:

  • Cheese sticks or string cheese
  • Full-fat yogurt
  • Diced fruit, fresh or packaged
  • Peanut butter and crackers
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Full-fat cottage cheese
  • Whole chocolate milk

#5. Make milkshakes or smoothies

Sometimes liquid-like foods are easier if chewing is a difficult or tiring task.

Some examples:

  • Nutritious soups – enhanced with cream, olive oil, or pureed meats and veggies
  • Healthy smoothies – add bananas, fruit, full-fat yogurt, or veggies like carrots and spinach
  • Hot cocoa
  • Full-fat milk
  • Milkshakes – good quality ice cream is better than eating nothing!

Some seniors take appetite stimulants. As a caregiver, you must be awareof the side effects of the stimulant and make sure it is appropriate for your patient.

#6. Social meals

Some seniors may be limited in social contacts, feel lonely and depressed.And it can cause the loss of appetite as well. So, eating with friends, family, or meal options at senior or community centers and even meal delivery services can help.

Eating To Encourage a Good Night’s Sleep

Not eating throughout the day and allowing the body to get hungry can even have an effect on one’s sleeping patterns. In order to sleep better, consider the following.

It is important that caregivers pay special attention to what is on a senior’s plate during the hours directly preceding bedtime. Try encouraging the following items:

  • Moderate Amounts of Lean Protein: while consuming too much protein can be hard on the digestive system late at night, adding some protein to a late-night snack can help promote sleep due to high levels of tryptophan.
  • Warm Drinks: drinking a glass of warm milk or a caffeine-free herbal tea at night can help relax seniors and boost the production of melatonin. No drinks with caffeine, avoid putting too much sugar in drinks right before bed, finish drinking approximately 90 minutes before going to sleep.
  • Healthy, Complex Carbs: carbohydrates paired with tryptophan-containing protein sources can help tryptophan make it into the brain where it is converted into serotonin. However, it’s a good idea to grab whole wheat toast or sweet potatoes over white bread, cookies, or other unhealthy carbs.
  • Fruit: some fruits such as cherries, kiwis, bananas, and pineapples contain melatonin, which can help seniors get to sleep sooner and stay that way longer.

Getting seniors who have no appetite to eat is a big challenge. Be patient, be creative, keep experimenting, don’t get discouraged and don’t take their refusal to eat personally. 


Department of Health & Human Services. (2014, May 31). Dementia – eating. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/dementia-eating.

Stevenson, S. (2018, October 3). 5 Foods That Help Seniors Sleep Better. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/6-27-14-foods-to-help-seniors-sleep/.

Sleep Disorders: Foods That Help Sleep or Keep You Awake. (2018, February 13). Retrieved from https://www.onhealth.com/content/1/avoid_foods_before_bed_sleep_better.

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