Table for Two: Sharing Meals With Seniors Boosts Health
Eating and social interaction are deeply ingrained in the human psyche. For the roughly 12 million seniors living alone in the United States, eating solo is a part of everyday life. For many seniors, living alone puts them at increased risk of social isolation.
It's the perfect recipe for loneliness, which during mealtimes can lead to poor eating habits and derail nutrition. Research shows dining with a companion can help seniors feel more connected and make healthier food choices. Sharing meals is one easy way to boost senior nutrition and support aging parents to stay healthy.
The Psychology of Eating Alone
People have been connecting over shared meals since the dawn of time. Food has always been about more than just survival, as evidenced by archeological discoveries. In a cave near Tel Aviv, Israel, a hearth dating back 300,000 years showed evidence of people gathering together to break bread.
Over time, dining at a table set only for one can be harmful to a person's health. Research shows people who dine alone two or more times daily are at increased risk for metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors that include pre-diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. In part, that might be because people who are lonely, socially isolated, and eating on their own tend to eat fewer vegetables and fruits, opting for foods that are less health-sustaining than people who regularly eat with others.
On the flip side, gathering with others to share meals creates feelings of community. People who eat with friends or family tend to feel they have more support. Research suggests that even after sharing food once, oxytocin levels rise to encourage social bonding.
Physical Benefits of Sharing Meals
As a caregiver, keeping your aging parents as physically fit as possible is one of your priorities. Sharing meals with you or with others can help boost their nutritional intake compared with having them eat alone. Up to 50 percent of American seniors are malnourished or at risk of undernourishment, with millions lacking consistent access to healthy foods. This can increase health problems and lead to longer hospitalizations. Malnutrition leaves seniors vulnerable to a variety of negative physical conditions, including:
- Losing muscle and tissue mass, leading to decreased mobility
- Longer healing times for recovery from illness and wounds
- Slowed immune response and increased risk of infections
Loneliness and social isolation can also decrease seniors' appetites. Not to mention, cooking a healthy meal for one can feel like too much bother, which is why many aging parents opt for processed foods, convenience items, or skipping meals altogether. This serves to underscore the importance of mealtimes. What's on the plate is important and the people surrounding your aging parents play a major role in making sure the plate's filled with healthy, nutritious options.
Tips for Helping Aging Parents Find Companionship During Mealtimes
Visiting as much as possible and sharing meals with your aging parents is one way to help combat loneliness. You can also step in to take them grocery shopping, pick up groceries for them, and help with meal prep to increase the odds your loved ones are eating balanced meals. But caregivers shouldn't have to go it alone. There are additional options, including:
- Check into local services like adult daycare or your community's senior center that can provide mealtime companionship and increased social connections
- Find in-home companions who can come and spend time with your loved one during mealtimes
- Enlist other family members and neighbors to participate in sharing meals and meal prep
- Consider signing your loved one up for home-delivered meals, which have been proven to reduce loneliness because of the interaction with the volunteer delivery person