Nutrition, Hydration, and Oral Care

We usually think of food and drink in terms of mealtimes and are careful to make sure our loved one gets three healthy meals a day.  But nutrition and hydration needs change with age or medical conditions.  These needs can affect all areas of health and wellness.

It can be hard to tell how much food and drink is enough, especially as the body of our loved one is changing.  Other things that influence this can include aging, level of physical activity, medication and digestive health. 

It’s common for people living alone, especially older adults, to have “tea and toast” or to skip meals entirely instead of having a well-balanced diet.  If your loved one isn’t feeling well they may be less interested in eating and drinking.  This makes it even more important to monitor their food and encourage them to eat and drink.

Hydration

Staying well hydrated, especially during the hot summer months, is important for everyone.  A lack of fluids can lead to serious health problems, especially in older adults.  They are at greater risk of fluid and electrolyte imbalances because, as we age, our body is less able to conserve water.  This can make it harder to adapt to things like changing temperatures.  Our sense of thirst also diminishes with age.  That means dehydration can come on quickly and begin even before we feel thirsty.

We should all be aware of the signs of dehydration.  Symptoms can include confusion, weakness, darker coloured urine and urinary tract infections (UTIs), dry mouth, headaches, fatigue, cramps or joint pain.  It may be a good idea to routinely offer water or an electrolyte replacement to your care recipient.  What is Dehydration? and Dehydration: A Hidden Risk to the Elderly will give you further details on what to look for and how to respond.

Nutrition

Many people don’t want to cook for themselves, especially if they live alone.  It can be hard to switch from preparing and eating meals with family to cooking for one.  Some people can no longer shop for food, cook for themselves, follow a recipe, or operate kitchen appliances. 

Statistics Canada’s Nutritional Risk Among Older Canadians explains what things can put someone at nutritional risk. This is a risk that falls between nutritional health and malnutrition.

If you are concerned about your loved one’s eating habits, you may be interested in these eight fact sheets from Dieticians Canada.

By calling 2-1-1 or visiting ns.211.ca you can get the most up-to-date listings of many community resources including
Meals on Wheels or Frozen FavouritesBoth programs deliver hot meals one or more times a week.

If you notice your loved one is having difficulty swallowing (the medical term for this is dysphagia), the Nova Scotia Speech and Hearing Centres have useful brochures on how to identify swallowing issues and how to help yourself or a loved one. They also describe the link between swallowing problems and oral care. 

Oral Care

Good oral health is important at every age.  It can have an effect on overall health, whether your loved one has natural teeth, dentures, no teeth, or a combination.  When it’s painful or uncomfortable to chew it can be hard to enjoy eating.  Also, the embarrassment someone might feel because of how their teeth look can cause them to be reluctant to socialize with others, especially during mealtimes.  Statistics Canada reports that people who rated their oral health as fair or poor are more likely to be at nutritional risk.  

Did you know?

  • Your oral health is an indicator of your overall general health.
  • There are over 500 medications that can cause dry mouth.
  • 7 out of 10 Canadians will develop gum disease, which is linked to heart disease, lung infections, and osteoporosis.

Caregiver’s Guide to Providing Oral Care is a short guide from the Ontario Dental Hygienists’ Association that gives a good overview and may be helpful.  

Caregivers Nova Scotia offers a free Brushing Up on Mouth Care workshop which will help you see the importance of good oral care to your care recipient’s ability to eat and to their overall health. Please call Caregivers Nova Scotia for information on a workshop near you.

Caregiver Tips

While our focus is on our loved one we may be forgetting our own nutritional needs.  In encouraging our loved one to keep hydrated, we may forget to hydrate ourselves.

Perhaps you could set up some good practices –drinking from a large bottle of water so you can track your fluid intake each day, or making healthy snacks easily available for when you are feeling hungry between meals.

When a thoughtful friend, family member, or neighbour asks what they can do to help, suggest they make an extra serving or two when cooking a casserole or something that’s easy to reheat. Chances are they’ll be happy there’s something they can do to help out.