Your parents probably grew up on meat-and-potato dinners heavy on gravy, sauces, and salt. But now that they're older, mom and dad need a healthier approach to eating. A poor diet is the cause of chronic illness in many adults over age 65, and aging exacerbates problems because it slows metabolism and decreases smell, taste, and thirst. In addition, one in five elders suffers from depression, which can cause a loss of appetite.

What you can do

  • Research your parents' medical conditions to learn whether certain foods might make matters worse. For example, foods high in sodium worsen high blood pressure, grapefruit juice counteracts some medications, and a high-carbohydrate diet spikes blood glucose levels — dangerous for diabetics.
  • Provide drinking water. Dehydration can lead to kidney problems and constipation. Older adults need encouragement to drink several glasses of water daily, so schedule a water delivery service for them. Because their generation isn't one to waste, they will be more inclined to drink it.
  • Understand meds. Encourage parents to habitually ask their pharmacist to identify any medications that cause dehydration, as well as those that might interact adversely with specific foods or that should be taken on a full stomach.
  • Create care packages of high-fiber bars and snacks, resealable bags of precut frozen vegetables, single-serving fruit containers, and natural nut butters with whole-grain crackers or bread. Also, buy mom or dad a good multivitamin. The Tufts University Nutrition Research Center on Aging especially recommends vitamins D and B12, plus calcium.
  • Organize meal companions. Not wanting to eat solo is a leading reason why older people become undernourished. If mom lives alone, enlist family and friends to dine with her (see lotsahelpinghands.com for ideas), or use the Eldercare Locator to find a home-delivered-meal program and senior-center luncheons (eldercare.gov; 800.677.1116).
  • Make it easy. Arthritic hands and poor vision make it hard to prepare or eat food. Contact Abledata (abledata.com; 800.227.0216) for a database of elder-specific utensils and cooking devices. If your parent suffers from dementia, help “place” food by arranging it on a white plate in clock positions. A simple explanation — “Dad, your potatoes are at three o'clock and your fish is at six o'clock” — can help him eat.

Food pyramid for elders

Tufts University Nutrition Research Center on Aging created a special graph that highlights foods and exercise habits important for the elderly. Go to nutrition.tufts.edu and enter food pyramid for older adults into the search box.

LINDA RHODES, EdD, is the author of Should Mom Be Left Alone? Should Dad Be Driving? (Penguin, 2005). Get free forms for tracking meds and compiling a medical biography for your parents at lindarhodes.com.