As seniors age, their metabolisms slow down, their appetite wanes and they require less energy to meet day-to-day needs. But despite these changes, if anything, their nutritional needs become more important.
“What we have is a unique situation where people need to consume a diet that is denser in nutrients, but lower in calories,” says Jemma Besson, a registered dietitian who works for Shoppers Drug Mart’s online dietitian service in Ontario. “Optimal nutrition to support each stage of life is essential, and healthy aging is no exception.”
Fewer calories doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice taste. From swapping out creamy mayo for heart-healthy avocado, to adding ginger for spice and balsamic vinegar for sweetness, there are many ways for seniors to eat healthily without sacrificing flavour.
And nor should the fun of eating have to diminish with age. At the Amica On The Gorge senior living residence in Victoria, B.C., for example, monthly themed dinners for residents and their families incorporate a touch of nostalgia and whimsy. A recent theme of a classic 1950s TV dinner involved redecorating the interior dining room, printing menus on old music records and finishing off with an upside-down cake for dessert.
And a diner en blanc, held outdoors in the main courtyard over the summer, invited residents to dress in white while dining on locally harvested pot prawns, sablefish, Dungeness crab and sea asparagus.
“When catering to seniors, it’s extremely important to put in the same kind of effort as you would at a high-class hotel or fancy restaurant, where emphasis is placed on both service and the appearance of the meal,” says Chef Robert Linder, Director of Culinary Services at Amica Arbutus Manor in Vancouver.
“Our sense of smell and taste might deteriorate as we get older – but the eyes are still there. Presentation is very important and so too is the service – our servers know our residents by name and all their likes and dislikes. This makes residents feel like they are at home and someone cares about them.”
From B to D
There are key nutrients that we need to focus on as we age, Ms. Besson says. These include fibre, calcium and especially vitamin B12. Calcium is essential for not only bone health, but also the function of the heart, muscles and nerves.
Both calcium and fibre needs can be met through whole foods – it just takes a little organization, says Ms. Besson. “Look to include a variety of calcium-rich foods throughout the day, such as almonds, tinned salmon with bones, cooked spinach, legumes and dairy or fortified dairy alternatives.”
As digestion slows down, and older adults’ sensation of thirst diminishes, constipation may occur. Eating a diet rich in fibre from a variety of sources like fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes can help promote digestive regularity. “One key thing to remember is that in order for the fibre to work optimally, you also need to drink enough fluids,” she says.
Supplements might be required to obtain other nutrients. For example, over time, our body becomes less efficient at absorbing B12 from the food we eat. “While it is still important to include foods that are rich in B12 such as meat, eggs, poultry and dairy, it’s likely not all of it is being absorbed,” says Ms. Besson. “That’s why B12 levels should be checked regularly by your doctor. Some symptoms of low B12 include tingling of fingers and toes, feeling fatigued, and having trouble remembering things.”
It’s also hard to get adequate amounts of Vitamin D from food alone. Found in foods like salmon, tuna and dairy, Vitamin D is not only needed for bone health, but is also related to mood, pain and our immune function, Ms. Besson says. “Most older adults could benefit from taking a supplement to help meet their needs.”
How to eat well
While great-tasting food and appropriate supplements can help seniors meet their nutritional requirements, it’s equally important to help them to connect food with their own lives and experiences.
This enables residents to feel not just that they have a choice of what to eat, but also to feel inspired and relive positive memories from their childhood, whether that involved going fishing or digging up vegetables on the family farm.
Amica Senior Lifestyles residences arrange regular chef demonstrations to give residents a behind-the-scenes view of meal preparation, such as the processing and filleting of an entire halibut that may have been caught that day.
When Margaret Chester moved into Amica On The Gorge a year ago, she was given the use of a garden plot “almost the same size of my apartment,” she says with a laugh.
Since then she’s been busy growing sweet peas and basil, which she shares with the kitchen for meals. “I don’t have a huge appetite, but the staff are so accommodating here with variety and so imaginative, you can always find something you’re happy to eat,” says Ms. Chester, 87.
In Vancouver, residents are encouraged to bring in their own recipes and suggest ideas for dishes that reflect their country of origin. Monthly themed dinners might feature cuisine from Brazil, Japan and the Philippines; a recent request for more Chinese food resulted in chow mein, stir-fried beef and fried rice making an appearance on the menu.
“Canada is a very multicultural country and our cuisine needs to reflect that,” says Chef Linder. “It also keeps it interesting. When I started, not many people came to have dinner with their families because food in seniors’ homes generally didn’t have a good reputation.
“That has changed drastically, as we sometimes host 600 external guests a month. They might join their loved ones for a fish and chips lunch or a ribeye roast beef dinner. When people want to come here because of the food, it makes a huge difference. It allows residents to enjoy those social connections with their family while also sharing a delicious meal.”
Chef Robert Linder’s Recipe for Baked Ginger and Cinnamon Salmon Filet in Fennel Seed Butter
Makes 4 servings
Total preparation time: 20 minutes
4oz skin-on salmon filet (or skinless if preferred)
Salt, fresh ground black pepper, ground cinnamon and ginger to taste
1 tablespoon fennel seed
2 tablespoons clarified butter
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Season filets on both sides with salt, pepper, ginger and cinnamon.
Grind or chop fennel seed. Heat it up shortly with the clarified butter so the fennel flavor gets infused into the liquid butter. Pour the fennel butter on each fillet into a skillet.
Place the skillet with the salmon into the preheated oven and cook for 5 to 6 min – or up to 8 minutes if you like it well done.
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