How to Increase Appetite in Older Adults

20 November 2019 Assisted Living

A lot of things change as you age, many of which can lead to a loss of appetite. It’s often necessary to find ways to increase appetite in seniors so they get the nutrients they need.

It’s natural to stop eating as much or to lose interest in some types of food when you get older. If a parent or loved one suddenly stops wanting to eat, it might be for any of several different reasons. Determining what it takes to increase their appetite and boost their nutritional intake will help protect their health and overall well-being.

The Issue of Nutrition for the Elderly

Nutrition is important for every person, but the elderly are especially vulnerable to malnutrition. Many of the diseases that are common in the elderly are associated with dietary factors. Failing to get the proper amount of nutrition is associated with high blood pressure, glucose intolerance, diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancer.

Specifically, a diet that is low in essential nutrients (the vitamins and minerals the body needs) leads to deficiencies that can cause illness. These deficiencies occur because the person either doesn’t eat enough overall or they don’t include enough variety in their diet.

The problem of appetite loss and malnutrition is a serious one in this country. If your aging parent lives alone, you might not realize how much their eating habits have changed. Even if you see that they aren’t eating as much as they used to, you may assume it’s a normal side effect of aging. If your loved one doesn’t show any interest in eating and they’re losing weight, it might be due to an unhealthy decrease in appetite that’s caused by any of several possible reasons.

Reasons Seniors Stop Eating

A good place to start is to determine if your loved one is not eating enough or if they aren’t getting enough of the right foods. Some seniors refuse to eat at all while others might limit their diets to sweets or greasy snacks.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that loss of appetite is the same for everyone over the age of 60. Getting older comes with a lot of physical and mental changes that can cause poor eating behaviors. It isn’t always for the same reason. Understanding the cause of your loved one’s lack of interest in food is the first step toward finding the best way to increase their appetite. If they aren’t eating properly, it might be:

Diminished Sense of Taste or Smell

We all know that feeling when your favorite meal is cooking and the smell gets your gastric juices flowing. Once it’s finally ready, you can’t wait to taste that first bite. Now imagine how an inability to taste or smell that food might dampen your enthusiasm.

One reason some seniors lose their appetite is the loss of their sense of smell or taste. The loss of these senses can actually lessen their feelings of hunger.

To increase appetite for someone whose sense of taste and smell are dulled, fix dishes with more spices, herbs, and flavorful vegetables. Adding salt, sugar, and fat might sound appealing, but these aren’t always healthy for older people with medical problems. Instead, use spices, herbs, and extracts that boost both the flavor and aroma of dishes.

Loss of Vision

A person’s visual perception changes, partly from age-related conditions like macular degeneration. Another change occurs when the eye lens yellows, making it difficult to tell colors like blue and green apart. These changes give seniors a different perception of what their meals look like. Combined with a decline in taste and smell, they might lose interest in food.

To increase appetite for seniors with vision problems, make a habit of preparing meals with healthy, colorful foods. Keep different foods separate on the plate so they are easily defined. Change the options daily to keep them interesting.

Lack of Energy for Cooking

When you get older, you feel a natural decline in energy. Sometimes health conditions, medications, and emotions including depression can cause a lack of energy. Instead of preparing healthy meals, the person might turn to snacks and junk food when they feel hungry. Too much junk food, in turn, adds to the problem of no energy.

If you live too far away from your loved one to fix meals for them, there are alternatives. You can hire in-home care or meal delivery services to prepare healthy meals for them. Another option is for them to move to an assisted living community. One benefit of assisted living is the availability of professionally prepared meals every day that contain the nutrients seniors need. They always have a variety of choices and get home-cooked meals that are both delicious and nutritious.


Slowed digestion that causes constipation is another side effect of aging. Even without taking prescription drugs that cause constipation and other stomach problems, it can happen. When it does, it gets in the way of seniors eating properly. Once they realize the distress comes from eating, they might start avoiding meals. Also, constipation causes feelings of being full and prevents them from feeling hungry.

One way to help is to encourage your loved one to add fiber and fluid to their diet. Increasing exercise also helps alleviate constipation, even if they are only able to walk for short distances. Discourage your loved one from using laxatives, which can make the problem worse. If these steps don’t help, talk with your loved one’s physician.

Oral Health Issues

Seniors with dental problems or ill-fitting dentures can have difficulty chewing. The shape of the mouth and jaw change over time, leading to looser or uncomfortable fitting dentures that cause painful sores and irritation. Seniors need regular dental check-ups whether they have their natural teeth, dentures, or other oral devices.

Prepare soft, cooked vegetables that are easier to chew. Seafood and recipes that use ground meat are easier to chew than steaks or pork chops. Add sauces and gravies that further moisten the meals. Making food less painful to chew might be enough to help them enjoy eating more, which will indirectly help to increase their appetite.


Seniors have more health conditions and they take more medications as a means to control them. Many medications have side effects that affect their appetite. Some cause food to taste differently while others cause symptoms like vomiting, nausea, or constipation. Some drugs might leave a bad taste in their mouth or cause it to feel dry.

Talk with their physician to see if there are alternative medications that might reduce their symptoms. They might also be able to adjust their regiment to avoid the negative effects. Another option is to work with a dietitian who might help increase their appetite without changing their medications.

Can’t Afford It

Most of us know that it costs more to buy healthy foods than it does to buy junk food. For seniors living on a fixed income, shopping for the best quality foods isn’t always an option. If your loved one is feeling the pinch, they might not want to share their financial burden with you or the rest of their family. Someone who has been self-sufficient their entire life doesn’t want to ask for handouts during their golden years.

Improving your loved one’s eating habits might be as simple as making food accessible to them. You can either stock their cabinets yourself or reach out to the many programs that help seniors get healthy food for this reason. Another option is to put them in a setting where food is included in their amenities. Prepared meals designed with their dietary needs in mind can help support healthy eating habits.


Eating meals is a social event, usually from an early age. For many seniors, the idea of eating alone is enough to reduce their appetite. They might no longer have their significant other to dine with after years of being together.

Taking the time to share meals with a loved one is important. You might also look to other friends and neighbors to join them regularly to eat meals or even share a snack. If you don’t have the needed resources, they might benefit from an assisted living community where they can dine with their peers. Sometimes it isn’t a loss of appetite that causes seniors not to eat; it’s the emotions they endure every time they eat alone.

More Ways to Increase Appetite in Seniors

  • Focus on giving them more nutrient-dense foods. Don’t try to make meals larger, just more nutritious. Know which nutrients are most important to seniors and make them count. Give them small meals more often instead of expecting them to eat three large meals each day. For example, instead of serving a salad before dinner, make it a separate meal a few hours earlier.
  • Consider the individual’s calorie needs. People come in all shapes and sizes. The same is true for aging adults. The body uses fewer calories for energy and for the body’s natural processes as you age. Eating the right number of calories helps the person maintain a healthy weight. The challenge is in getting the proper nutrition within their ideal calorie count. One way to do this is to discourage eating empty calories like sweets and chips. For seniors who need to lower their weight, nutritional supplements might be a good option.
  • Create a meal schedule so they eat at the same times every day. This helps keep them eating at every mealtime even if they don’t feel hungry. It also makes it easier to track what they are eating.
  • Encourage seniors to participate in activities that involve food. This might include cooking, preparing food for special events, shopping for ingredients, or even working in a garden. If they lack the energy for any of these roles, find simple ways to get them involved. Let them cut up the veggies for the salad or help plan the menu.
  • Encourage physical activity. Make sure they have the resources they need to help them stay fit. If walking isn’t an option, look into exercise classes designed specifically for the elderly. There are even types of chair exercises that almost anyone can do. Staying physically fit can help increase appetite and improve overall physical and mental health.
  • Have them screened for depression. Seniors are especially susceptible to depression and the condition can cause a loss of appetite. Getting them to eat might be a matter of treating the underlying condition.
  • Consider an appetite stimulant. If you can’t increase appetite through natural means, it might be the only option. Not eating enough leads to poor nutrition, unwanted weight loss, and a higher risk of illness and disease. If all else fails, talk to their doctor about giving them a prescription appetite stimulant to help them eat.

How to Increase Appetite in Dementia Patients

Seniors with dementia have even more reasons to experience a loss of appetite. They have more problems coordinating movements to feed themselves, problems keeping their attention on eating, dysphagia (problems swallowing), and various levels of cognitive and physical impairment that can make them resistant to care. Dementia patients often become agitated and might exhibit signs of depression and apathy.

People with dementia often become agitated when exposed to a noisy environment. To make mealtime more productive, create an environment that is relaxing and comfortable. Eliminate background noises such as the TV or lots of people talking at one time. Consider playing slow, relaxing music to drown out the noise of other diners.

Creating the right environment can help all seniors enjoy mealtime more. Use brightly colored seating, table cloths, placemats, and appliances to add visual appeal. Always keep the importance of socialization in mind while designing the dining room.

How Bethany Homes Can Help

When your loved one is no longer able to take care of themselves at home, you want them to have the best of care for their situation. At Bethany Homes, we offer a range of care services to address every need. Assisted living allows seniors to maintain their independence while getting the helping hand they need. We also offer memory care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

Contact us today to schedule a tour. If you have questions, call us at 925-443-6822 or email us at We’re always happy to hear from you.