Changing eating habits may prove challenging to the elderly, but their health may depend on it. Studies show that the right diet slows aging and reduces the incidence of many common diseases that strike the aging: diabetes, hypertension, heart attack and stroke.
So what’s the right diet?
During the hot days of summer, we naturally tend to eat lighter fare such as fish, vegetables, fruits and nuts. It’s easier on our bodies and doesn’t seem to “weigh us down.” The odd thing: We should eat this way year-round.
There’s a name for this style of eating: the Mediterranean diet.
What are the common elements in a Mediterranean diet? Besides fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts, the diet includes beans, whole grains and healthy fats like olive oil. What’s missing are red meats and butter. Spices, lemons and fresh herbs are used in place of salt. Red wine, consumed at moderate levels, is deemed beneficial — not always, however, especially with certain medications or other health issues.
Another possible issue: The elderly may find it difficult to chew and digest nuts so thinly slice or finely chop them. Before changes to an established diet, it’s important to review dietary considerations with the elder’s doctor.
Transitioning away from a traditional American diet is easier if we are the ones doing it. The elderly are often set in their ways, wanting to eat like always. To help an aging adult transition might be challenging, but, in fact, it might be easier than you think.
The reason: When young, many of our elder Americans ate fresh vegetables from the family garden. This was a daily event, so, in many ways, they are returning to their roots.
Keep in mind, though, there are circumstances when a familiar diet is warranted. If one’s health is failing or if dementia sets in, getting these oldsters just to eat is critical. Therefore, familiar food is the way to go, even though it includes meat and butter.
The elder’s transition will depend on who’s doing the cooking. If Mom and Dad have caregivers in their home, engage them in a discussion about changes to the meal preparation and menus.
As sons and daughters, we should model the right eating habits to aid our aging parents.
If Mom or Dad are cooking for themselves, then cook dinner with them once a week. Have them help you with the menu planning. This will be a way to introduce nontraditional meals. If your broiled fish and Mediterranean salad (for example: greens, chopped nuts, peach slices and gorgonzola) are well-received, then you’ve opened the door to other food options.
One nice thing about a Mediterranean diet: Meal preparation is fairly easy. It’s more about purchasing the right ingredients. Combining ingredients and cooking are simple processes.
Another idea: Turn your once-a-week visit and meal prep into a cooking class. For more active seniors, this might become a new leisure pursuit or passion — with wonderful health benefits.
Guide them in finding recipes online. Pinterest is a particularly good source, and it’s interactive: They might enjoy the social aspect of making online comments about the recipes they use.
Shop with them, or offer to shop for them. Introduce them to grains like farro and brown rice, which are easy to cook. Farro can be used in salads and side dishes. Fresh fruit can be incorporated into every meal. Frozen fruit is good and retains its vitamins; frozen blueberries are particularly good.
Another idea: How about a once-a-month outing to attend cooking classes? In Seattle, there are classes taught by leading Serafina and Cicchetti chefs. Kitchen stores and area groceries offer cooking classes.
Several of Seattle’s senior living communities advertise healthy food options. When shopping for senior living options, eat several meals in the facility’s dining room — have at least one breakfast, one lunch and two or three dinners. If the facility promotes healthy food options, make sure they walk the talk.
Ask for a tour of the kitchen and talk to the staff preparing the meals. Inquire about ingredients, the sourcing of food and meal preparations. That way, you’ll learn first-hand how well they deliver on their promise of healthy food.
For healthy aging, we all need to bring the lighter fare of summer into the fall and winter months.
MARLA BECK is the founder and president of Andelcare Inc., which provides in-home eldercare. Submit questions by calling (206) 838-1844 or via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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