Diet is an integral part of any Health and Wellness curriculum and is often brought up in my classes. In fact, the first class of the quarter opens with the importance of drinking plenty of water – especially for seniors. I tell them that babies are 85 to 90% water – younger adults about 75% – but many older adults are only 50-60% water. We discuss the thirst mechanism and how many older people no longer crave water (feel thirst). “But just because you are not thirsty does not mean you don’t need to drink more water”, I tell them. “Drinking plenty of water helps with pain and inflammation in muscles and joints, tension headaches and migraines, weight loss, skin problems, digestive issues, diabetes, circulation, cancer prevention, and impaired memory and brain function”, I explain.
My classes emphasize protecting cognitive functioning – hugely important to this population. Poor diet and insufficient water intake has been shown to affect memory and brain function in many studies. I share with them a study that shows that diets high in sugar and saturated fats affect memory and sleep.
The problem, for many of my students, is that they live in senior housing and their food is prepared for them. They don’t have a lot of control over their meals. During a discussion about portion control one student told me that there is a place on the menu where they can circle ‘1/2 portion’ but most of the time no-one looks at that and they receive a full portion. This began a discussion on advocating for one’s needs.
Many seniors feel dis-empowered. In the past they had a lot of control over their lives – now they are dependent on others for many of their needs and can feel depressed and isolated as a result. Health is not just physical health – it is also psychological health, social health , environmental health, and spiritual health. An important component of psychological health is some semblance of control over your environment.
This generation especially, tends to accept the status quo and not advocate for their needs. During a discussion on healthy eating – we talked about how important it is to avoid, as much as possible, highly refined white sugar. A diet high in sugar contributes to diabetes (seniors are already at high risk for diabetes), depression, mental confusion, obesity, sleep problems, etc.
I asked if they are offered dessert at every meal and they laughed and said ‘yes’. One student shared that they don’t really offer it – they just set it down in front of them without asking. Anybody who has ever tried to avoid eating sweets knows it is much harder to resist when it is in front of your face.
We agreed it was time to advocate for their needs. A couple of simple changes can make a difference in their health. We are now working on a memo to the administration – asking them to pay attention when a resident circles ‘1/2 portion’ and to ask residents if they would like a dessert instead of just giving it to them. Very simple, very doable – and very important for the health and well-being of this population.