This blog was contributed by the Malnutrition Task Force for Carers Week.
This week is Carers Week, an important opportunity to raise awareness of the contribution carers make to families and communities throughout the UK and highlight the challenges they face.
We can be in no doubt carers face a number of different challenges on a daily basis, and one of these can be ensuring the person they care for has enough food and drink. According to Carers UK, 6 out of 10 carers worry about the nutritional intake of the person they care for.
Caring for an older person who is undernourished is very common. Latest figures show over 1 million older people are undernourished or at risk in the UK and 93% of them live in the community.
Often undernutrition goes unnoticed because it’s seen as natural to lose weight in later life or because weight loss is seen as being inherently beneficial.
However, these are myths. It’s not normal to lose weight in later life and it’s not good to be either underweight or overweight.
Weight loss can affect wellbeing, increase the risk of ill health and result in longer recovery times from surgery and illness, so it’s essential to act if you think an older person you care for is at risk.
What you can do
It’s easy for weight to drop off without noticing so, firstly, it’s important to be aware of the signs.
Some signs, such as loose fitting clothes and jewellery slipping off, may be clear to see. Less obvious signs include changes in mood, tiredness, difficulty in keeping warm and dizziness.
If you are concerned about the weight of an older person you care for, you must encourage them to visit their GP to rule out any serious illnesses. If they need specialist dietary advice or have difficulty swallowing, their GP can arrange for them to see a dietitian or speech and language therapist.
Beyond this, there are other things that can be done to combat weight loss. Although it may be difficult to discuss weight loss specifically, you could discuss food and eating with them more broadly. For instance, you could ask them if there is a particular meal or snack they enjoy, or an occasion they remember having a really tasty meal, to get some idea of what they would like to eat.
If you don’t live with them, try to plan visits around mealtimes as seeing someone else eat can act as an incentive to do likewise.
It’s important to bear in mind that if someone can’t face a large meal, eating little and often can be a great way to maintain dietary health. Indeed, six small meals a day are just as good as three main meals.
There are also plenty of easy ways to add extra nutrition to meals and snacks. For instance, you could put honey, sugar or jam in porridge, desserts and cereals, or add double cream to soups and mashed potatoes.
However, remember to always check with a GP or dietitian before making changes to a diet, especially if you care for someone with heart disease, diabetes or another long-term illness.
If you would like more information, the Malnutrition Task Force has produced advice guides tailored to carers and older people themselves respectively. They cover signs of unhealthy weight loss, further ideas on what can be done to prevent this, simple ways to add extra nutrition to meals and easy recipe ideas.
We know that caring for someone with weight loss can be tough. But with the tips outlined above and in our Guides, hopefully some of these worries can be alleviated.