My father is 78 years old and widowed. Lately I’ve noticed that he is putting very little energy into preparing meals for himself. My mom used to do all of the cooking. I work long hours and have a terrible commute, so I have almost no time to help him in this area. Because his driving is limited, especially at night, I’m concerned for his health and that he always eats by himself. Any suggestions for enhancing my dad’s nutrition and socialization situation would be appreciated. — R.K., Berkeley
Dear R.K.: It sounds like your life is busy and that you care a lot about your father. You have every reason to be concerned and to want to improve both his nutritional and social situations.
Poor nutrition in older adults is a well-recognized and serious problem with significant health and social consequences. Nutrition plays a key role in healthy aging: It is well known that a diet rich in nutrients can prevent osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
It may seem extreme, but eating alone can actually can take a toll on your health. And not surprisingly, many older people live alone and therefore eat most meals alone.
According to the National Institute on Aging, an estimated 19 percent of men and 37 percent of women over the age of 65 live alone; for those over 85, 29 percent of men and 57 percent of women live alone.
If a person isn’t dining with a spouse, other family, roommates or friends, chances are higher that he or she will not be making healthy choices. For example, widows and widowers who live alone consume fewer vegetables than married couples do. Many seniors who live alone are more likely to rely on convenience foods loaded with sodium, unhealthy fat and sugar.
On top of these factors, your dad may be lacking cooking skills, interest in food and motivation to prepare meals.
According to research, as people age, their taste buds change, health issues interfere with the digestion process and medications often diminish appetite. Depression can also contribute to decreasing appetite or a lack of desire to cook or shop for groceries.
The good news is that strengthening social ties improves physical and emotional health and also enhances nutritional intake. If your father is not an experienced cook, there are options available (such as Meals on Wheels or senior lunch programs) that offer tasty, nutritious cuisines.
Lunch programs, at a Jewish Community Center, for example, also provide socialization opportunities and activities.
If your father would consider dabbling with cooking, he also might find his socialization increasing. Cooking more than he needs just for himself and then asking a friend or neighbor over could break the pattern of eating alone. This could be a new beginning for your dad if he is willing to experiment with new recipes, take cooking classes or try shopping at a farmers markets.
Another option is to look into the many food delivery choices around today. Hello Fresh, Munchery and Blue Apron are all web- and app-based companies that deliver either fully prepared meals or the ingredients (along with recipes) to make simple but tasty meals. If your father wants to go the ingredients-recipe route, a caregiver or housekeeper could prepare the food if he’s not up to the cooking.
Food delivery has become a competitive marketplace. Amazon Prime Now, UberEats, Caviar and Postmates are some examples of companies that will deliver food from select restaurants in your area.
As much as your time allows, I do encourage you to eat with your dad and support his healthy choices. Remind him that cooking for one doesn’t have to mean poor nutrition. There are options beyond fast food or opening a can of soup. Preparing his own meals can help your dad take charge of his health.
No matter what his culinary skills, he can learn to cook simple, tasty and healthy meals, possibly supplementing with healthy delivery choices. Being thoughtful about his diet means he is taking time to care for himself. This can improve his mood and self-esteem, and hopefully will result in your dad inviting others to join him for dinner.
Rita Clancy, LCSW, is director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. Her columns appear regularly in J.’s Seniors sections. Have questions about your aging parents? Email email@example.com or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 257.