Sometimes it's difficult to eat healthy! There are a variety of reasons for this shortcoming of balanced nutrition. Sometimes it's out of sheer wanton desire to eat a cookie instead of a salad. More often it is because of restricted access to healthier food. Other times lack of ability due to time, energy, and/or desire to prep a balanced meal is to blame. Of course, we know that fruits and vegetables are much healthier for us than something out of a box or can. We know inherently that meals made from fresh, whole ingredients are better for us than something microwaved in plastic. Yet, many of us fall short of nutritional goals. In the age of convenience and at an age where many tasks are increasingly inconvenient, how can we make certain our elderly loved ones are eating healthy (or at least healthy enough)?
Healthy eating is a vast topic as it means different things to different people. While some people commiserate over organic and GMO-free foods, others struggle to find any fresh food options that meet their dietary needs. Still others are merely searching for something that tastes appealing and fits their budget. There is the ubiquitous food pyramid, recently recalculated and redesigned into MyPlate, which sets a reasonable goal for the general population. Carefully calculated nutritional information and RDAs (recommended dietary allowances, the reading material on the side of food packaging) are good benchmarks for most people. But are these nutritional targets achievable, or even in the realm of realistic, for Mom?
The short answer is: no. Most guidelines are made for an adult in reasonably good health with a "standard" diet. There are alternative versions available for older adults but even these alternatives utilize calculations with the aforementioned "standard" diet.
Let's face it, when it comes to diet these days the standard is evolving. There are diets to accommodate any number of chronic health concerns such as high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol, and diabetes (just to name a few)! Vegetarian, vegan, ovo-lacto, pescatarian, gluten free, low carbohydrate, and kosher-what qualifies as a "standard" diet shrinks in the blink of a discernable eye. Add to the equation Mom's many years of experience on this planet and she has strong convictions on what she likes and doesn't like to eat.
If somebody attempted to eat a perfectly balanced plate at every meal with the best ingredients available it would cost a fortune in money, time, and effort! Organic, non-GMO, locally sourced, and minimally processed foods are great ideals to live up to but a hard-accomplished feat even with the fantasy of inexhaustible resources. Taking into account time, money, and effort merely frequenting the grocery store to keep in ample supply of fresh and nutritious foods can be an arduous task. There are so many factors (and hurdles) to Mom having a well-balanced, healthy diet!
Who doesn't like having a little extra financial assistance when shopping?
There are a few different food assistance programs specifically for seniors. These programs are both federally and state funded and vary by location. This is not the government cheese program of the 1980s. Programs such as Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program and Commodity Supplemental Food Program are designed to put healthy food options within reach of seniors who may otherwise not have financial access to nutritional options.
In addition to the federal and state programs, many communities have additional programs aimed at helping the elderly have healthy options. The Area Agency on Aging is a good place to ask about community funded nutrition programs. Find your local AAA.
Don't forget to inquire about an extra discount! Coupons, in-store circulars, and direct mail advertisers are all good ways for your elderly loved one to save on groceries; remind Mom to check with customer service upon entering to see if they have any additional coupons or discounts available for the shopping trip! Some stores even offer a senior discount on certain days. Every Florida retiree should know Publix gives a senior discount on Wednesdays!
Access to resources due to physical mobility or transportation issues are other potential hurdles to overcome. If Mom is fortunate enough to drive or have reliable transport to the store, then she is in luck! Keep in mind that once at the store a trip around all the aisles can be tiresome, as well as confusing, for some seniors. Don't be shy about using the motorized carts available or getting assistance from customer service upon entering. For your tech savvy senior some grocery stores now offer online ordering, so all Mom has to do is pick up her order; some places will even meet you at the curb with your grocery bags!
Consider meal and/or grocery delivery service. If not needed all the time, see if your elderly loved one would be interested in services on an occasional basis. It is a good opportunity to source other avenues of assistance, should they be needed more often in the future. Don't forget many home health agencies offer shopping assistance on a variety of levels from full service shopping trips while Mom is at her shuffleboard tournament to escorted transportation and assistance while perusing the aisles and deciding on the best apples to choose.
Once one has finally accomplished the monumental task of getting to the store on a regular basis with no wallet worries there is the hurdle of readily available, appropriately nutritional options! Many of the healthiest options have regional and seasonal restrictions. Depending on one's location in the United States, and the proximity to major thoroughfares, Mom's access to items will vary. Looking for fresh seafood in the Mid-West? Mom is better off buying farm fresh eggs and other local offerings found either at farmer's markets or at the grocery store. Fresh dairy may be in abundance but depending on the season fresh berries may arrive to the store cultivating their own fur jacket. Those of us in larger metro areas tend to forget what the rest of the country lives like; access to a wide variety of fresh options diminishes the further away one lives from metropolitan centers and transportation arteries.
Help your elderly loved one plan out their shopping trip based on what they like to eat and what the best available options are. Nothing is more frustrating than getting home and discovering they purchased fermented fruit from 5000 miles away or squishy squash from somewhere unknown. While this is a minor inconvenience to us as able-bodied adults, for a senior who may only get to the store a couple of times a month this significantly impacts their nutritional intake of fresh fruits and veggies.
Fresh is best but some is better than none! Frozen, dried, and/or canned veggies and fruits may not be as nutritionally dense as fresh, but they are still nutritionally valuable and far better than none at all. Alternative formats of your favorite fresh fruits and veggies may even be better for your aging loved one. Canned apples are peeled and cored and softened from the packing juice, and all the difficulties of preparing tropical fruit already taken care of when buying a dried fruit mix. Let's be honest, most of us would prefer our arugula and spinach in a cloyingly dessert tasting smoothie rather than munching through a salad a day; frozen fruits and vegetables come smoothie ready and are cost friendly. Frozen fruits and veggies are markedly more nutrient dense than canned but remember, any kind counts towards daily nutritional needs! Just make certain to read labels and avoid common packing downfalls such as added sugar or sodium.
Leah Felderman is a proud alumnus of University of Central Florida (BA) and San Diego State University (MA). She has worn many occupational hats including teaching, hospitality management, government contractor and non-profit organizer. She is an intrepid international traveler having visited over 60 countries before happily settling down into her new life chapter of domesticity as a mom and Coast Guard wife.