I learned early on in my career that loneliness affects the dinner table. I was a young TV news anchor at the time, and one day, an elderly woman walked up to me in a store and said, "I live alone, but I eat dinner with you every night." It was the first of many times that I would hear those words. It was always humbling, and it instilled an extra sense of responsibility in me at 6 o'clock every evening.
Now that I have elderly loved ones who live alone, I see that they're coping with an empty table and little interest to cook or even eat. It's a common problem. "They're missing companionship," says Melanie Pearsall, a dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. "When eating is no longer a social experience, people don't make an effort. There's no joy left in preparing food, because people don't view it as something valuable to do for themselves."
Challenges lead to health risks
Loneliness is just part of the nutrition challenge for older people who live alone. They may also experience
- depression, which can reduce appetite
- immobility, which can keep people from being able to cook
- declining thinking skills, which can cause people to forget to eat
- transportation or financial problems, which can keep people from buying food
- dietary restrictions due to chronic illness, which can feel overwhelming when it's time to figure out what to eat
- medication side effects, which can cause changes in taste.
As a result, older adults may wind up skipping meals or relying on convenience foods, such as cereal, frozen dinners, or canned foods. "I see people doing mono-meals, and eating the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They aren't bothering with fruits or vegetables. They eat poorly, and their diet lacks variety," says Pearsall.
That lack can lead to malnutrition — a deficiency in vitamins, fiber, protein, or calcium — and malnutrition can lead to poor digestion, weight loss, bone problems, and fatigue.
Shortcuts to better nutrition
Initially, it may help to remind older adults that eating will give them a little more pep. "I find that energy is a big hook," says Pearsall. "People might not be motivated about good health, but they always want energy to see the grandkids or go to the store or do a hobby."
She also points out that healthy meals don't have to be complicated. These are some of her favorite tips for crafting simple and nutritious meals:
Aim for three meals a day, and try to hit general nutrition targets.
- Fill ¼ of the plate with protein (chicken, fish, legumes, eggs, or cheese).
- Fill ¼ of the plate with whole grains (wild rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta).
- Fill ½ the plate with vegetables (go for variety and color — kale, squash, carrots, broccoli).
- Add one piece of fruit and/or yogurt.
Change the definition of a meal. It doesn't have to be fancy; it just has to come close to your nutrition goals. Ideas include a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich on whole-wheat bread, with a piece of fruit; an egg atop whole-grain toast, with yogurt and fruit; or a whole-grain waffle with a little peanut butter, along with fruit and a small glass of milk.
Blend convenience foods with fresh foods.Take low-sodium soup stock and throw in some frozen vegetables; or buy a rotisserie chicken and then use it several ways — in soup, sandwiches, or a salad.
Batch-cook once or twice a month. Make a big "batch" of lasagna, soup, stew, or casserole; divide it into numerous servings; freeze them for later use.
Beyond the table
Make socialization a priority, particularly for older folks who may be less able to get out and about. "You must talk to someone at least daily, and get out of your house at least once a week," says Barbara Moscowitz, a geriatric social worker at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Consider volunteering for a non-profit group, or take advantage of programs and lectures at local senior centers.
Everyone should make an effort to share meals with family and friends once in a while. A mealtime conversation will enrich your life much more than dinner in front of the TV news — even when the news anchor is glad she can be there for you.