When it comes to seniors and nutrition, COVID-19 may be making a bad situation worse. Research conducted by Home Instead, before the coronavirus pandemic forced the added isolation of so many, revealed that 75 percent of lonely seniors in the U.S. (69 percent in Canada) already were not getting the right amount of at least one element of nutrition.
The coronavirus, which may be worsening loneliness for many older adults, could further jeopardize a senior’s ability to shop for and prepare healthy meals, according to nutritionist Shannon Muhs. In fact, loneliness is one of several warning signs of nutritional risk.
However, one positive may have resulted from the current situation, Muhs noted. Many are getting a lesson in empathy. “Everyone is learning about loneliness and how to cope and deal with it,” Muhs said.
Muhs offers the following tips for helping to ensure a senior is getting a healthy diet during isolation.
5 Tips to Ensure Isolated Older Adults get a Healthy Diet
1. Involve seniors in a meal plan.
Seniors will be more likely to eat well if their menu includes foods that are not only nutritious but ones they like. Helping seniors create a plan every week or so can help older adults maintain a schedule of preparing and eating good food.
“Make a plan together,” Muhs said. “Hand write or type it. You can’t hit the target (of regular healthy meals) without a plan in place. Put the list on the fridge or on the mirror. Let the senior know the down sides of skipping meals. Low energy is one. Be involved with shopping, either online or in person.” Include in the plan a way for loved ones to regularly get groceries, whether it’s through delivery or by curbside pickup.
2. Improvise, if needed.
Fruits and vegetables are particularly important to a healthy senior diet. While nutritionists often focus on fresh ingredients, canned and frozen foods can be healthy options as well. Fresh may not be as readily accessible for seniors who don’t live close to their loved ones or who may not have the ability to get groceries as often. “Canned is an acceptable option,” Muhs said.
3. Enhance the flavor of foods.
While access to nutritious foods is important, so too is flavoring food, such as veggies, to improve taste. While many seniors are watching their weight or have dietary restrictions, “it’s OK to put butter or margarine on vegetables to make them taste good.” Why not experiment with herbs as well. Check out this guide to matching herbs and spices with the right veggies.
4. Encourage healthy snacks.
Three meals a day isn’t the best option for all seniors, Muhs noted. Six smaller meals often work as well. Healthy snack choices could include peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit and veggie sticks, cheese and crackers, or a wheat tortilla roll-up with turkey, lettuce and cheese.
5. Make companionship a priority.
Food is a social experience that is often enhanced by companionship. Lack of that could pose nutritional risks for seniors, Muhs said. Facetime calls or Zoom meetings, or use of Grand Pad during mealtimes could help an older adult feel less isolated. “Going to the senior’s home to simply look through the window or calling to talk through the events of the day will make a difference,” Muhs said.
Meals can be a great time to reminisce, even if it’s from a distance, noted Home Instead Gerontologist and Caregiver Advocate Lakelyn Hogan. “Ask your loved ones about the foods they grew up with or how the super markets have changed over time. Or make the same meal --- such as spaghetti – ahead of time, enjoy it together virtually and share recipes.” Conversation starters to kick off dinner could help during this time of social distancing.