Melissa Powell
Melissa Powell
Melissa Powell headshot
Melissa Powell

One fundamental truth remains constant in senior care: elderly residents deserve access to the best possible care throughout their golden years.

Senior living and care executives stand at the forefront of this noble mission. It is our responsibility to strive to improve the quality of life and well-being of our aging population. Although a multitude of factors will influence this mission, one aspect often is underestimated yet holds the key to unlocking a world of health, vitality and happiness for our elderly loved ones: nutrition.

Beyond the familiar adage, “You are what you eat,” this article will explore the profound significance of proper nutrition in senior living and care and the interconnectedness between aging and nutritional needs. But it doesn’t stop there. Confronting the silent but alarming epidemic of malnutrition allows us to identify and necessary implement strategies that detect and combat this insidious threat. Nutrition is a powerful ally in safeguarding cognitive health, preserving independence and functional ability, and nurturing emotional well-being. 

It isn’t often we stop to view senior care through the lens of culinary innovation, but creativity and passion in the kitchen can elevate the standard of long-term care to new heights.

Aging and nutritional needs

As the senior population continues to grow, understanding their changing nutritional needs is critical to providing exceptional care. Aging brings about a myriad of physiological changes that affect how our bodies absorb, use and process nutrients. Such changes can lead to deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals, heightening the vulnerability of our elderly population to various health issues. From a decline in appetite and taste changes to alterations in metabolism, those age-related factors create unique challenges in meeting the nutritional requirements of our elderly residents.

Senior living and care executives must recognize the intricate interplay between aging and nutrition so we can gain the knowledge and insight necessary to tailor individualized dietary plans for residents. One size does not fit all in nutrition; meal options must address specific nutritional deficiencies, support immune function and enhance overall well-being.

Beyond physical health, nutrition also plays a crucial role in maintaining mental acuity and emotional stability as we age. Studies have linked certain nutrients to cognitive health, such as antioxidants that help protect brain cells from oxidative stress and inflammation. Therefore, it is essential to incorporate those brain-boosting nutrients into the diets of our elderly residents, to promote cognitive function and potentially reduce the risk of cognitive decline. And eating well not only promotes a positive outlook but also fosters a sense of dignity, independence and self-worth as well.

Addressing malnutrition: A silent epidemic

Despite its pervasive impact, malnutrition remains an insidious and often overlooked epidemic within the senior living and care industry. Malnutrition affects a significant number of elderly individuals, regardless of care setting, and its consequences can be devastating. From compromised immune systems to increased susceptibility to infections and delayed wound healing, malnutrition poses a severe threat to the health and well-being of our elderly residents.

Early detection and intervention are paramount in confronting this silent enemy head on. Implementing regular and comprehensive nutrition assessments conducted by qualified professionals can help identify older adults at risk of malnutrition, even before visible symptoms manifest. We must adopt a multidisciplinary approach involving not only nutrition experts but also caregivers, nurses and other healthcare professionals as well. Fostering a culture of collaboration and communication allows senior living communities and skilled nursing facilities to customize nutrition plans that align with the unique needs and preferences of each resident. 

It’s also important to engage in open dialogue with residents about their dietary choices. Incorporating their input into the meal-planning process can enhance their sense of autonomy and improve overall compliance with recommended dietary changes. This effort also helps make meals more enjoyable and appealing.

Presentation, variety and flavor are essential factors that influence an older adult’s appetite. Incorporating diverse cuisines and textures into meal plans entices residents to savor their food, fostering a positive dining experience that transcends the mere act of sustenance.

Maintaining cognitive health

Cognitive health is a key concern for older adults and their families, and nutrition plays an integral role in maintaining brain function.

Foods that are rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and essential vitamins, such as vitamins E, C and B-complex, can support cognitive function in residents and potentially reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. 

We should help residents embrace a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, which can provide a holistic approach to nurturing brain health. A Mediterranean-style diet, in particular, has garnered significant attention for its positive effects on cognitive function, as it combines those brain-boosting nutrients with ample plant-based foods and healthy fats such as those found in olive oil and nuts.

The timing and frequency of meals also can influence cognitive health. Establishing regular eating patterns and avoiding long periods of fasting are important for enhanced brain function.

Dehydration also can impair cognitive performance and exacerbate existing cognitive decline, so proper hydration becomes critical as well.

Promoting independence, functional ability

A well-balanced and nutrient-dense diet provides the necessary energy to fuel everyday activities and supports muscle strength and bone health, essential components for maintaining physical functionality.

Protein, for instance, takes center stage in preserving muscle mass and function. Incorporating protein-rich foods such as lean meats, fish, eggs and legumes into our residents’ diets can contribute to maintaining their physical strength and independence. Ensuring an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D also fosters bone health, reducing the risk of fractures and falls.

It also is essential to consider individual preferences and cultural backgrounds to tailor meal plans that resonate with our residents’ tastes, ensuring that they look forward to each dining experience.

Cultivating emotional well-being

The gut-brain connection, often referred to as the “second brain,” links the digestive system and the central nervous system, affecting mood, emotions and mental health. A diet rich in nutrients can improve emotional well-being and reduce the risk of depression and anxiety.

Mealtime also can be transformed into a social gathering, a time of camaraderie and an opportunity for emotional connection. Additionally, providers can consider incorporating more comfort foods into meal plans, which also can go a long way in alleviating stress and enhancing emotional health.

When possible, consider adding cooking classes or baking sessions to your community’s social activities calendar, as they provide an avenue for self-expression and creativity while also serving as an opportunity for residents to share their culinary expertise with others.

The long-term care sector must champion nutrition as a vital component of the industry’s mission of providing holistic care to the aging population.

Melissa Powell is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Kennett Square, PA-based Genesis HealthCare, a holding company with subsidiaries that, on a combined basis, comprise one of the nation’s largest long-term care providers, with almost 250 senior living communities and skilled nursing facilities across 22 states. She previously was president and chief operating officer of The Allure Group, a New York City-based long-term care operator. She has 20 years of experience coordinating, assessing and improving senior care using a market-focused model in New Jersey and New York. In 2021, she was honored as a McKnight’s Women of Distinction Hall of Honor inductee.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

Have a column idea? See our submission guidelines here.