Nutrition is one of the most important elements of health and wellness. Getting adequate nutrition for our bodies helps us maintain physical fitness, strength, mobility, and independence. As we age, our bodies need even more support in the form of a proper diet, vitamins, and supplements. Unfortunately, for thousands of Americans living in nursing homes, their nutritional needs are not being met. This is a tragic form of nursing home neglect.
Malnutrition in Nursing Homes
According to a study published in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, as many as 20 percent of nursing home residents experience some form of malnutrition. Malnutrition makes nursing home residents vulnerable to a number of health problems, including:
- Weight loss
- Impaired immune system
- Bedsores (pressure ulcers)
- Muscle weakness
- Decreased bone mass
- Cognitive impairment
Severe cases of malnutrition can complicate existing medical conditions, and can quickly become life-threatening. Whether you are a family member or a caregiver, it is important to recognize the signs of malnutrition and know how to get help.
What are the Signs of Malnutrition in Nursing Homes
As we age, it is natural for our bodies and habits to change. Sometimes, a little weight loss or changes in appetite is normal. Sometimes, however, it is a sign of malnutrition. There are signs of malnutrition in nursing homes that you can watch out for as a family member or caregiver. These signs include:
- Weight loss
- Bleeding or swollen gums
- Fragile bones
- Memory loss
- Cognitive decline
- Dry skin
- Tooth decay
As you can see, the signs of malnutrition can also be related to many other conditions, side effects of certain medications, or may be simply the result of neglect. So how do you know if it is really malnutrition? Consider the following:
- Observe Habits – Observe how your loved one acts during meals. Does he or she push food around, eat only a little, or clean their plate? Do they complain about the quality or seem satisfied? If meals are prepared in a private residence, who cooks and what quality of ingredients are being purchased? Does your loved one cook for him or herself?
Nursing home residents who prepare meals or eat in their private residence may not enjoy mealtime. They may feel lonely or depressed, and may simply not eat. Living alone can also cause many people to stop cooking healthy meals as they did before.
- Monitor Weight – It is not uncommon for nursing home residents to lose or gain weight. However, if over time you are seeing a steady weight loss, it might be time to talk to your doctor about malnutrition. You can monitor weight changes by considering how your loved one looks, how their clothes fit, and how their weight changes at doctor’s appointments.
- Be Aware of Red Flags – Aside from weight loss, there are many less obvious red flags that your loved one might not be getting adequate nutrition. Weakness in bone or muscle health is common, along with more frequent infections. You may also notice that your loved one has a harder time healing from even minor injuries.
Also look for signs of alcohol consumption or smoking. Alcohol and cigarettes both decrease appetite. Alcohol in particular also interferes with natural digestion and nutrient-absorption.
- Know the Side Effects of Medications – If your loved one takes daily medications, read up on the possible side effects. Many medications cause a decreased appetite or impact digestion. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about malnutrition as a side effect of medications.
- Address Dietary Restrictions – If you are concerned about malnutrition in nursing homes, you may want to talk to your doctor about dietary restrictions. Many people are on low salt diets or are restricted from certain foods for medical reasons. This can be difficult to adjust to, and may impact how your loved one responds to food. If it is not enjoyable, he or she may not eat.
What to do About Malnutrition in Nursing Homes
Malnutrition in nursing homes is a tragically common occurrence. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to take action if you suspect that your loved one is not getting the nutrition that he or she needs. Here are some tips for what you can do about malnutrition.
- Engage Your Doctor – Weight loss, changes in appetite, falls, or weakness should be addressed by your doctor. Talk to your doctor about nutrition, and open up conversation with your loved one about their eating habits. You can also request screenings to see if your loved one is healthy from the inside out.
- Work with Your Caregivers – Talk to nursing home staff about your loved one and the concerns you have about malnutrition. Make sure that your loved one has access to a variety of foods including snacks throughout the day. If he or she cooks for themselves, ask caregivers to check in at mealtime. Have your loved one’s refrigerator stocked with supplement drinks or smoothies, and healthy snacks.
- Consider Hiring a Professional – If you don’t feel comfortable with the level of care provided by the nursing home, you can always hire a professional home health aide or cook. This person can shop for healthy ingredients, prepare snacks and beverages, and help with preparing meals. You can also arrange for your loved one and caregivers to meet with a dietician to discuss healthy eating.
- Contact your Ombudsman – If you have tried all of these interventions but your loved one is still showing signs of weight loss or malnutrition, it may be time to get outside help. Nursing home residents have the right to maintain control and independence of their lives. They also have the right to be provided with services that meet their basic needs. If a nursing home is not meeting these needs, you can contact your local Ombudsman to help advocate for your loved one.
By considering these options, you can make sure that your loved one is getting the nutrition that he or she needs. This is an important step to making sure that your loved one’s golden years are happy, healthy, and as independent as possible.
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