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National Eating Disorders Awareness for the Elderly in Home Care

March 2, 2021

The National Eating Disorders Association has declared Feb 22-28 National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This is commonly assumed to be something that primarily afflicts younger people, and especially younger women. While that may have been true at some point, increasing evidence suggests that elderly people are among the fastest growing segment of those suffering from eating disorders. Seniors who live at home by themselves may be especially vulnerable to eating disorder; and those seniors receiving at-home care and their caregivers should be on the lookout for signs of eating disorders.

Eating Disorders Among the Elderly

A 2010 study into eating disorders among the elderly found that the most common eating disorders among the elderly mirror the most common eating disorders for everyone.

  • Anorexia nervosa was by far the most common eating disorder suffered by elderly people. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where the person suffering is so fearful of gaining weight that they don’t eat, or eat so little as to become malnourished. Signs of anorexia include behaviors such as weighing themselves repeatedly, severely restricting food intake, and a distorted perception about their weight.
  • The other common eating disorder among the elderly is bulimia nervosa (sometimes referred to as “binge-and-purge”) which occurs when the person suffering eats large quantities of food, followed by forced vomiting or excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, along with feeling a lack of control over these episodes.
  • Less common eating disorder include binge eating and orthorexia. Binge eating, which is similar to bulimia without the purging component; also involves a perceived lack of control over binge episodes. Orthorexia involves an unhealthy preoccupation with eating only “healthy” foods and may lead to disordered eating of only a few certain types of food; which can lead to malnutrition.

Eating Disorders Aren’t an Elderly Person’s Lifestyle Choice

It’s important to remember that an eating disorder, whether in an elderly person or a younger one, is not a choice. Much like addiction or other behavior-based disorders, eating disorders can be the sign of an underlying emotional or mental issue. One large study showed that 97% of those hospitalized with eating disorders had a co-occurring condition such as severe depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress.

The Danger of Eating Disorder to Seniors in Home Care

It’s true that many Americans are overweight; and it’s also true that for many, losing weight is an important step to maintaining good health (link to heart post). But eating disorders go well beyond a healthy perspective on weight loss. People with anorexia can become malnourished, while those with bulimia can become severely dehydrated, just to name two common side effects. But it’s even more serious than that, as self-harm and mortality rates increase dramatically for those with eating disorders.

Additionally, the elderly face unique challenges with regard to eating disorders. Because they are generally considered to be a younger person’s condition; eating disorders are frequently undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in older people.

(Pull out box if possible) Eating Disorder or Dementia? A Question for Seniors

Seniors who have Alzheimer’s-related dementia; may exhibit a change in eating behaviors that mimics some of the signs of an eating disorder. The link between dementia and eating disorders is still being studied; however, in dementia patients there may be a different explanation. Such as a reluctance to eat due to difficulty chewing or swallowing. It’s important to share these types of eating concerns with a medical professional. An in-home caregiver can sometimes assist with this concern by being present during mealtimes.  

Treatment for Seniors with Eating Disorder

Whether it’s eating too little, or binge eating. The answer to how to treat seniors with an eating disorder is similar. Treatment generally must take two different tracks. First, establishing or re-establishing a healthy diet, sometimes called nutritional rehabilitation, will help the person avoid the physical effects of the condition. But it’s also necessary to seek treatment for the underlying emotional or psychological cause of the eating disorder. Individual or family therapy, as well as medications such as antidepressants can be effective, and complete recovery is considered possible.

The Road to Recovery for Seniors with Eating Disorders

An elderly person living at home can face many obstacles when dealing with an eating disorder. Loneliness and isolation may lead to a recurrence of feelings of depression. Meal preparation can seem daunting, especially when preparing meals for just one person. Seniors may find that, after taking care of their daily housekeeping chores and personal hygiene; they don’t have the energy to even think about cooking for themselves. And medications such as antidepressants that might be prescribed for eating disorders need to be taken regularly, and preferably at the same time each day. Having an in-home caregiver can assist with these tasks and more.

Home Care Powered by AUAF Can Help

Whether it’s providing healthy meals that are easy for a senior recovering from an eating disorder to eat; setting up and maintaining medication reminders, or providing companionship for a senior living at home. Our outstanding home care aides can help a senior living at home. Call us at 877.947.2658 or contact us to find out more. 

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