Taking care of an aging parent, an ill spouse, or anyone else who can’t be independent has many responsibilities, not the least of which is what the person eats.
Healthy meals can be a source of energy and a way to help keep illness at bay, so paying attention to the diet of someone you are caring for is an important, if unsung, task of being a caregiver, says Carol Simmer, a registered dietician with the Whatcom County Council on Aging.
Simmer and Julie Meyers, nutrition director at the Council on Aging, say that while a multivitamin and calcium supplements are beneficial, the best way to consume most nutrients is through everyday meals.
“There is a synergy of nutrients working together that you can’t always get from a supplement,” Meyers says. “You just can’t beat food.”
Start with the basics
“Nutrition is pretty universal,” Simmer says. “It’s important at all ages to get a variety of foods, enough calories, or not too many calories, depending on their current health.”
Simmer suggests starting with suggestions offered at choosemyplate.gov and eatright.org, which make recommendations for how to set up nutritious meals and for the daily dietary needs for adults. Links from the websites offer suggestions on how to keep meals affordable, and provide recipe ideas for meal planning.
Talk to their doctor
If the person you are caring for has cancer, is in a cardiac-recovery program, or has diabetes or another illness, it’s important to sit down with their doctor to determine if they need a special diet or should avoid certain foods. A doctor will also be able to check the person’s weight to determine if they need to gain or lose pounds. If necessary, the doctor can recommend an appointment with a dietician if the person needs a highly specialized diet.
Also, discuss any potential problems with medications and certain foods. For example, some blood-thinning medications are counteracted by large amounts of vitamin K, which is found in leafy greens. And other medications, including some diabetes medicine, are adversely affected by grapefruit juice.
Doctors also can advise caretakers about the person’s need for soft foods if they have problems chewing or swallowing.
Check for fiber and water
Most adults should get 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day to promote colon health and reduce cholesterol. Foods such as barley, pears, prunes and baked beans are good sources of fiber.
As you add fiber to someone’s diet, add water to make sure their digestion stays on track. High fiber, combined with a lack of liquids, can cause constipation.
Water, in general, is necessary for overall good health.
“Hydration is extremely important, especially if someone is ill,” Meyers says. “If they don’t like water, add a little bit of flavor with some juice or fruit.”
Soups are great way to add both fiber-filled vegetables and fluids to diets, especially if someone has difficulty chewing raw vegetables.
Supplement drinks not a substitute for good nutrition
While supplement drinks sound like a great way to make sure someone is getting their nutrients, Simmer cautions against relying on them everyday.
“People think they can drink a supplement and get the nutrition they need,” she says.
In truth, supplement drinks require several bottles to meet many dietary requirements, and Simmer adds, “They’re expensive.”
They are also high in sugar. Some drinks have more than 10 grams and others nearly 20 grams of sugar per serving, more than in a sugary cereal.
If someone is able to eat three healthy meals a day with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, they likely don’t need a supplement drink. If you are using supplement drinks to get more protein in a person’s diet, a glass of milk, powdered milk, and yogurt are high-quality protein sources, Meyers says
Consider prepared food
Simmer and Meyers agree that if a person is homebound, caregivers should consider participating in the Meals on Wheels program through the Whatcom/San Juan Nutrition Program. The meals can take some of the burden off of caregivers, and ensure the person they are caring for gets what they need.
“Each meal is balanced nutritionally,” Simmer says. “There is not an overload of fat, sugar or sodium.”