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National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Elderly ED’s On the Rise

February 25, 2013

NEDAwareness Week 2013 is from February 24th to March 2nd. This year’s theme is “Everybody Knows Somebody,” and as NEDAwareness.org points out, “Eating disorders do not discriminate--ANYONE can be effected.”

Drop inner stereotypes about negative Barbie doll influences and too tiny girls eating nothing but saltines while still participating in afterschool triathlons. They exist, of course, and they need very serious attention, but they are not the only faces of eating disorders.

According to a 2010 study, “Eating Disorders in the Elderly,” published by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, “Eating disorders in the elderly are often overlooked. When they occur, significant morbidity and mortality result... Eating disorders do occur in the elderly and should be included in the differential diagnosis of unexplained weight loss in the elderly.”

The age range of cases studied by the Mayo Clinic researchers was 50-94 years old, 88% of whom were female. Over 80% had anorexia nervosa and 10% had bulimia nervosa. The study found that late onset eating disorders were far more common in the senior population than early onset ones. Major depression was found to be common a factor, and even if seniors do not make up the larger population of those living with eating disorders, they do make up the sad majority of preventable deaths due to untreated anorexia.

Anecdotal evidence exists all over the web, as well as in our day to day lives, those of our friends and our families. Often, an elderly eating disorder will occur after a spouse passes away or divorces late in life. Lonely and feeling undesirable, body image becomes a curse for the one “left behind.” If a parent or someone you care for is showing signs of unexplained weight loss or gain, it is not a change to be ignored. Keep in mind that eating disorders can also be invisible if we don’t know what to look for, especially if we don’t want to see them in the first place. After all the encouragement and life lessons our parents taught us, it can be very difficult to admit to ourselves that they now need a cheer squad worse than we did during our most trying school days.

If a senior in your life has been losing weight or seems to have become obsessed with the idea of shedding pounds and dropping sizes, there are several ways to intervene unobtrusively. First, find out if there has been any changes in medication, as this can have a significant impact on appetite and emotional responses. Here are some tips on how to gently ease an elderly loved one you’re worried about back into proper nutrition:

  • Bring up your own efforts at health improvements. Even if you haven’t had a chance to implement a new diet or exercise program, talking about a healthy regimen is an excellent way to open up lines of communication.
  • Steer bragging into new outlooks. If your mom or dad is quite proud that their belt notches are tightening by the day/week/month, don’t be quick to admonish them, as you don’t want them to feel as if they have to hide their “progress” from you. Say something along the lines of, “Wow, that’s pretty incredible!” then introduce a nutritional supplement that you “saw on TV,” “tried yourself” or “heard about from a friend.” Explain how it helps to maintain healthy weight while also boosting energy via vitamins and good proteins, reminding them that exercise (if physically able) along with proper dieting is the path to better health. Ensure Plus is a great, high protein choice that can be used with or between meals and, in appropriate amounts, as a meal replacement.
  • If nutritional drinks are sitting on the shelf collecting dust, an approach that may appeal more to a person concerned about the quantity of food they’re ingesting is to incorporate Pro-Stat 101 High Protein and Calorie Liquid. It delivers the highest concentration of protein and calories in the smallest serving size: fifteen grams of protein and 101 calories in only an ounce!
  • Eating disorders are not a light matter, however, and if you are concerned for your parent’s wellbeing, get medical advice right away and continue to follow up, even/especially after positive progress becomes visible.
  • Therapy, social activities and the forms of creativity they enjoy most can pave the way to better health holistically, including a better appetite, but, perhaps more importantly, boosts self-esteem and self-love.

If your parent is willing to admit they have a problem, support groups can have a very positive impact. Again, talk to you and your parents’ doctor, do an internet search for appropriate groups and consider that it may be time for Mom or Dad to be supervised for portions of the day via in home care or adult day care.