Helping Senior Living Residents Avoid Unhealthy Weight Gain

Related topics: Health & Wellness, Getting Enough Exercise

Senior community residents in the dining room

In July 2019, experts from West Virginia University noted that today, about 30% of senior care community residents are living with obesity. This complicates their care, and compromises their health. Some skilled nursing facilities are adapting their buildings with widened doorways and specialized equipment. But of course, the main focus is on the health of residents. So today, there is increased emphasis on helping residents maintain a healthy weight.

Not so long ago, when people thought of seniors and weight problems, they were thinking of the problem of being underweight. It is true that being significantly underweight is a red flag for possible health problems in the elderly. But geriatrics specialists say that today, a greater percentage of the senior population is dealing with the opposite health challenge.

University of New Hampshire kinesiology professor Dain LaRoche reported that the common image of a "bird-thin" elder being at the highest risk of disability might not be accurate. LaRoche said, "That's the chorus that's been sung for the last 20 years. But with two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese and the elderly population expected to double by the year 2030, we are going to see a large portion of people who are disabled due to the concurrent gaining of weight and loss of strength."

Most of us are aware of our nation's obesity epidemic. Health educators have done a good job of publicizing the connection between obesity and health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Many studies have also shown that excess body fat raises the risk of cancer, osteoporosis, dementia, arthritis, hearing loss and depression. For this reason, senior care communities—once primarily focused on helping residents maintain or even gain weight—are now also helping residents avoid becoming overweight.

Here's how a senior care community can help:

Providing meals that are both appetizing and healthy. As we grow older, our metabolism slows down and we need less fuel for our bodies. But our need for nutrients does not decline. This means that every calorie must count! According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Most older Americans are having trouble fitting the recommended number of daily food group servings into their decreased calorie budgets." Seniors who live at home with health challenges often find themselves relying more and more on frozen meals and prepackaged foods. But these foods are higher in fat and sodium, and lower in nutrients, than the freshly prepared meals they will find in a senior care community, where the dietary department helps residents follow an eating plan that meets their nutritional requirements and any dietary restrictions recommended by a resident's doctor (such as diabetic, low salt, low fat or high fiber).

Encouraging physical activity. A healthy diet is half of the strategy for maintaining a healthy weight. Exercise is the other half. American Geriatrics Association experts report that a regular physical activity program can prevent disability even in extremely obese older adults. Physical activity burns calories, builds muscle mass and helps control appetite. But people with physical or cognitive challenges may have trouble getting enough safe, appropriate exercise. Senior living communities offer exercise and other activity programs that meet the needs and limitations of residents in a supervised and encouraging environment.

Support for managing health conditions. Arthritis, osteoporosis, strokes and fractures make it harder to be active. A cycle of weight gain can be the result. Senior care communities help residents manage their doctor appointments, medications, rehabilitation program and other physician-prescribed health management tasks.

Mental stimulation and companionship. Many seniors report that they do not eat healthy meals because it's just too much trouble to cook for one. For years, geriatricians cautioned that loneliness and isolation can result in an unhealthy weight loss for seniors who live alone—and they now also emphasize that loneliness can be a risk factor for obesity. An isolated senior may overeat out of boredom, or skip meals and then fill up on junk food. Senior living communities emphasize social engagement and human connection—which might well be what a lonely senior truly craves instead of that package of chocolate doughnuts!

The National Institutes of Health has warned that by the year 2030, as our population ages, obesity-related illness will account for an estimated $66 billion in additional healthcare costs. Senior care communities are important partners in bringing those numbers down.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2019 IlluminAge