I often call my Dad after work. To my surprise, he’d always finished dinner. I couldn’t believe he was eating at 4:00 PM. It was even worse when I visited and saw how poorly he was eating. So, I started looking into why so many elderly parents eat dinner so early. And, I learned a lot about routines, isolation, physical changes and senior nutrition.
So, why was my Dad eating dinner at 4 PM?
First, he’d lost his normal routine. Back when he worked, his day was very structured. After retirement, he and Mom kept up a pretty active routine. Mom did the cooking. But they did the shopping together. Meals were a big part of their day.
After Mom died, Dad lost interest in activities like shopping and meals. He did the bare minimum. Most days were spent in front of the TV. He started waking up earlier (probably the result of some depression after Mom died). Some days he’d fall asleep in his chair or go to bed very early.
Lack of Activity
This leads to another factor in many elderly parents’ changed eating patterns. When your elderly parents don’t get much exercise, they don’t get as hungry. Activity creates an appetite. Dad wasn’t exercising, let alone doing much at all. His body actually didn’t need as many calories. Unfortunately, he was also not getting enough nutrients. As he developed health issues, he was undernourished and unable to heal.
Dad was clearly lonely and isolated. Studies have confirmed the relation between these factors and eating habits. Sharing meals with others brings pleasure. Eating is much more than a physical process. The smell of food cooking, the company of others, the setting...all play a role.
One U.K. study showed single people over 50 ate 2.3 fewer vegetables/day than those with partners. Interestingly, though widowed people ate less vegetables, if they lived with someone else that difference disappeared. We were able to use this information to improve Dad’s eating habits and nutrition.
Fear (and the tricky bathroom issue!)
Dad admitted another reason he was eating so early. He was scared of getting up to go to the bathroom at night. His good friend had fallen and spent the rest of his days in a nursing home. So, Dad decided not to eat or drink close to bedtime. This is a common pattern for many elderly parents.
He also worried about cooking. He’d never done much cooking. Mom used to joke that he could burn water. And, Dad took that to heart. Therefore, he was mainly microwaving meals and snacking. Many times his 4 PM meal was just a few cookies or reheated pizza. Some elders also worry about money. Therefore, they go for the “early bird specials” or cheap (and often unhealthy) options.
It becomes harder to digest food (especially certain foods) with age. We have less digestive enzymes. And, some medications cause digestion problems or affect appetite. Many elders suffer from constipation. This can all affect the way your elderly parents eat. Particularly, they may eat dinner earlier to avoid nighttime indigestion.
Other physical issues may impact the ability to shop and prepare meals. Some elders start going out for a big lunch and skipping dinner. They don’t want to drive at night or prepare meals. In the early evening, they might eat some candy or ice cream. Our sense of taste diminishes with age, and sweet or salty food may be more appealing.
So, does it matter if your elderly parents eat dinner at 4 PM?
Of course not, if it’s what they prefer. But, often there’s more to it. It helped me to discover many issues. Dad’s quality of life was suffering. Dinner at 4 PM was just the tip of the iceberg that was about to sink his ship.
So, what did I do to help Dad?
I met with him and his doctor to get some medical issues resolved. Then, I hired EasyLiving to provide meal preparation and companionship. His appetite increased with the smells of cooking in the home. He enjoyed meals again with some company. The caregiver planned tasty meals and did the shopping (he started going along again). She cooked healthy meals that were easy for him to digest. He got to eat many of his old favorites.
With her help, he developed a routine and started going out again. Our care manager did a home assessment and we “fall proofed”. We added nightlights in the hallway and bathroom. I was so relieved that Dad was safe, but also happier.