When a Senior Refuses to Eat: What You Can Do to Encourage Eating

Threats do not work. Anger solves nothing. Treating an aging parent refusing to eat like a child not only doesn’t work but is an affront to the dignity your mother or father deserves. If you are the adult child of an elderly parent refusing to eat, there are things you most definitely should not do – some of which we just mentioned. However, there are some tactics you can employ to encourage your elderly parent to eat or to assist in resolving an underlying issue that may be the real cause of not eating appropriately.

There are seven commonplace reasons why an older person may refuse to eat:

  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Low vision
  • Side effects of medication
  • Constipation
  • Dental or oral health problems
  • Dining alone
  • Unwillingness to prepare meals

Loss of Taste and Smell

Eating involves many senses, chief among them are taste and smell. The sense of sight and even touch can also come into play. Many adults experience a reduction in their senses of smell and taste as they age. What can be called a dulling of the senses greatly impacts how seniors perceive food. Loss of sense and smell can lessen their feelings of hunger. If a person doesn’t feel hungry, they will be less inclined to eat.

To enhance a senior’s dining experience, a caregiver can healthily alter recipes to include more flavorful spices, herbs, and vegetables. For example, aromatic ingredients like onions, garlic, ginger, celery, or even carrots at the start of cooking create deeper, more flavorful foundations for various cuisines. Going this route also produces lovely aromas in the process.

Adding sugar, salt, and fat to a senior’s diet is an easy but unhealthy method of intensifying the flavors of their food. This is why some seniors prefer sweet treats and junk food over healthy ingredients. But, again, this is not healthy. Try using fresh herbs, a squeeze of citrus, spices, extracts, and different cooking techniques to boost the flavor profile and aroma of an aging parent’s meals, including what we discussed at the start of this section.

Low Vision

Your aging parent may be facing issues associated with their vision that include:

  • Cataracts
  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Other eye conditions

Sight is one of the senses that plays a role in eating. If your elderly parent cannot see what is being served, your mother or father will likely lose interest in food. This particularly is the case when sight issues combine with the lessening of taste and smell.

Vision loss can make it difficult or unsafe for seniors to grocery shop and prepare nutritious meals. These are also points to consider if your parent hesitates about mealtime or outright refuses to eat (at least to a significant degree).

The visual presentation of an older individual’s meals definitely can be enhanced. Strategies to consider include:

  • Make a point of serving healthy and also colorful foods
  • Separate each part of the meal so that each selection is clearly defined on the plate
  • Use dishes that contrast with the color of the foods being served
  • Even consider varying the plate presentations (including dinnerware used) from day to day to keep mealtimes interesting

Side Effects of Medication

The side effects of medications can also have a negative impact on an older individual’s eating habits. These include meds like:

  • Alzheimer’s drugs
  • Certain anti-depressants
  • Cardiac medications
  • Antibiotics
  • Stimulants

In addition to causing a reduction in a senior’s appetite, some medications can have other side effects that indirectly cause a reduction in food consumption. These negative side effects include:

  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bad tastes in the mouth
  • Dry mouth

Your parent’s doctor may be able to adjust your mother’s or father’s medication to reduce or eliminate these negative effects. There may also be some types of non-pharmaceutical interventions that can address the side effects mentioned a moment ago.


Yet another aspect of aging can be a slowing of the digestion process for some people. In addition, this can occur as a result of the use of certain prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications. The net effect of this for some older individuals is constipation. The uncomfortable symptoms of constipation include bloating, abdominal pain, and a feeling of fullness. Any one of these can cause a reduction in a person’s appetite.

One way to assist your aging parent in dealing with appetite loss associated with constipation is to increase fiber and fluid intake. You can also encourage aging parents to engage in physical activity as often as possible. Even a leisurely walk can assist in “getting things moving.”

In a situation involving constipation that has been a more long-term issue, laxatives should be avoided. Laxatives are intended for more short-term and not intended for long-term use. Laxatives used over a longer period can make a constipation situation worse.

If the problem with constipation does not resolve in a reasonable period, consult your parent’s physician. A doctor should be able to devise a personalized treatment plan for alleviating digestive issues and restoring a healthy appetite for your senior mother or father.

Dental or Oral Health Problems

Dental and oral health issues often are the underlying reason why a senior parent refuses to eat (frankly, for understandable reasons). If your parent appears to have difficulty chewing, your mother or father may have some dental or oral health issues.

Regular dental checkups will prevent serious problems from developing dental or oral health issues. Regular dental checkups work to ensure that a senior will be able to continue eating normally.

In addition, foods that are soft, moist, and cut into smaller pieces are easier to eat for older people who are experiencing some level of oral discomfort. This can be accomplished by serving vegetables that are cooked instead of raw. Rather than a steak or pork chop, select a flaky fish, plant-based proteins like beans and lentils, or different recipes that include ground meats. Serving meals with healthy sauces can moisten ingredients. This can facilitate easier chewing and swallowing (particularly helpful if an older parent is dealing with a dry mouth).

Dining Alone

For many people of all ages, meals are more enjoyable when shared with others. Many people in their Golder Years grew up with sit-down family dinners. Mealtimes can become lonely for seniors who live on their own.

Whenever possible, try to share meals with your parent. Recruit other family members, friends, and neighbors to join your parent regularly for lunch, dinner, tea, and an afternoon snack. In some communities, there are what are referred to as “congregate meal events.” Senior centers, churches, and other community organizations typically host these gatherings.

Your local Area Agency on Aging can provide details about these gatherings and information on whether volunteer drivers or specialized transit services are available to assist with transport.

Unwillingness to Prepare Meals

In some instances, an aging person becomes unwilling or unable to grocery shop, nutritious cook meals, or both. It can affect their eating habits and overall health and wellness if that occurs.

Some family members and caregivers opt to cook for their loved ones. This can be difficult for long-distance caregivers, those who work, and those with their own families. Other options include Meals on Wheels and paid meal delivery services for seniors, including  Silver Cuisine and Magic Kitchen.

In-home care is another alternative that can provide a myriad of benefits. Home care is unique because it offers companionship, meal preparation, and light housekeeping services for seniors in the comfort of their own homes. Professional caregivers can also assist with feeding clients who have difficulty with this and help with a range of other activities of daily living. Proper nutrition is essential for a senior’s health, wellness, and independence. If addressing the issues using some of the strategies discussed in this article fails to yield results, consulting your aging parent’s doctor is the next step. A doctor may recommend seeing a specialist like a gastroenterologist to deduce why eating is a struggle. A physician might also suggest working with a registered dietitian to assist.