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Respect your elders—give 'em the food they want

NFM Staff

April 24, 2008

7 Min Read
Respect your elders—give 'em the food they want

Bess Eskovitz, 87, has a system. If she needs to have a jar—usually of peanut butter or pickles—opened, she "happens" to be at her mailbox in the lobby of her Philadelphia apartment building when the mailman shows up so he can help her with the lid. Some wily seniors, like Bess, have found ways to adapt to the challenges of EWE—eating while elderly. However, stocking your shelves with products that are elder-friendly in terms of content and packaging can help lure members of this growing population to your store.

People's needs change individually as they age, says Colleen Pierre, R.D., a past director of the Maryland State Office on Aging and an adjunct professor in nutrition for the aging at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Different parts of the body age at different rates," she says. But Pierre and other specialists agree there are some generalizations to keep in mind to successfully market to the 70-plus sector.

"With age, you lose flexibility as well as stamina," says Lalita Kaul, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., professor at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based American Dietetic Association. Older people don't want to wrestle with double- and triple-packed products, so items with easier access will be popular. "Also, bigger print on labeling and instructions" makes life easier for the elderly, Kaul says.

"Arthritis is the No. 1 concern I see with the elderly," says Ruth Frenchman, R.D., also a spokeswoman for the ADA. Not only does it make opening packages difficult, but "it makes it difficult to cook," she says. Plus, Pierre adds, the majority of elderly people living alone are women, and "by the time they get to that age, they're sick of cooking."

Prepackaged, fresh ingredients for a meal, such as a stir-fry, where vegetables, chicken breast and a sauce are offered on the same shelf in a store, are great, says Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, who's also a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the ADA. "That way, everything they need is right there. There's no chopping or having to read a cookbook."

Smaller portions
The physiology of your stomach changes as you get older, Kaul explains. "Levels of acidity and speed of peristalsis change, and food sits in the stomach longer. That's why small meals several times a day are best," she says.

Appetite also decreases with age, Pierre says. When Pierre worked in senior services and asked her clients what they'd like in terms of meals, she was repeatedly told that they did not want big meals; rather, they preferred to just "snack around." So she created the "Snack Around Diet."

"It was about keeping foods around that you can eat as they are without lots of preparation," she says. "Things like small portions of fruit, hard-boiled eggs and small containers of yogurt."

"In general, the rise in preportioned packaging—like boxes of snack packs—has been a big bonus for the elderly," Gerbstadt says. "They just need to stick with the healthier snack-pack selections."

Stocking a variety of preportioned foods would help a store appeal to elderly shoppers, she says, as would applying this principle to the bread aisle. "An entire loaf of bread can be too much for an older person to eat before it turns into a green-and-purple science project," she says. Offering half-loaves of bread would be very appealing.

Smaller portions also help elderly consumers avoid leftovers and waste. "This age group hates to waste—food and money," Frenchman says. Plus, smaller, lighter packages are easier to wrestle in and out of carts and cabinets.

Something (soft) to chew on
"Older people often have to make textural changes in their diet," Pierre says. They must select foods that are easier to chew. Often that means eating more cooked, rather than raw, vegetables, she says.

Donna Weihofen, co-author of Easy-to-Swallow, Easy-to-Chew Cookbook (Wiley, 2002), offers some creative suggestions, such as tuna mousse. "[Put] tuna in a blender with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. It's high in protein, a great lunch or appetizer," she says. She says fish is an especially good option "because it just flakes in your mouth. It's so soft, you can just gum it down and not have to chew." Similarly, crab cakes, meatloaf and crustless quiches are easily squishable.

A great way for people with difficulty chewing to get their servings of fruit is with baby food, Kaul says. "The jars are little," she says. "And it's an easy way to keep small portions of things like apples, pears and bananas around."

Hydrating without heavy lifting
"As you age, your sense of thirst diminishes," Kaul says. The elderly need to be careful not to become dehydrated. For those who don't like the taste of tap water, Kaul says, "Flavored waters are good alternatives to plain water."

The smaller the containers of liquids, the better, Gerbstadt adds. Larger containers are difficult to lift and pour. The half-sized six-packs of soft drinks are very popular with elderly people, she says. "Offering healthier options in those sizes would be a great idea."

Beyond prunes
Older people often have slower gastrointestinal-tract motility, so they need more fiber, Gerbstadt explains. Today, they're not limited to prunes. "There are great options like high-fiber cereal and legumes," she says. Canned legumes are a healthy, convenient choice, she adds, as are nuts and dried fruits if consumers' teeth can handle them—or nut butters and spreadable fruit if not.

Nutritional needs
"A lot of elderly people lose the ability to absorb [vitamin] B12," Gerbstadt says. B12 depletion can lead to anemia, poor immune function and impaired nerve function. "So they need to take in more, at least two small portions a day. You get that basically from anything that comes from animals." Easy, convenient B12 options include tuna, salmon and chicken packaged in foil pouches (so people can avoid the trials of opening cans), as well as hard-boiled eggs. "The omega-3 fatty acids in fortified eggs also help to keep neurological functions optimized, plus they're convenient, familiar foods," she says. "Stores that sell chicken in packs with just a single split breast are also doing a service for the elderly."

For vegetarians, Pierre recommends eating soy-based foods and cereals fortified with B12, or taking a B12 supplement.

Older people also need more calcium to prevent bone fractures, Frenchman says. "But really, what older person is going to drink four glasses of milk a day?" Alternatives she suggests include packages of small portions of low-fat yogurt and cheese. Plus, many people, particularly Asian and African Americans, develop lactose intolerance as they age. For them, soy products are healthy alternatives.

"With calcium-fortified products—like calcium-fortified orange juice and even breakfast cereals—there are a lot of new ways to get calcium without drinking milk," Gerbstadt says.

For a long time, older Americans have looked to prepackaged shakes, such as Ensure, to meet their additional nutritional needs. But such products often contain large amounts of corn syrup and artificial flavors. Unfortunately, few if any natural alternatives exist. "What's out there isn't appealing—they're not really delicious at all. People are better off making their own 'instant breakfast'-type shakes themselves by throwing skim or soymilk in a blender with half a banana, some honey and some soy protein," Gerbstadt says. "Including dried egg whites will make it nice and frothy."

Spice it up
The experts caution, however, that older people need to be careful that the prepackaged and prepared foods they buy are low in sodium, fat and sugar, particularly if they have high blood pressure (often caused by medications), high cholesterol or diabetes.

Sometimes, as people age, they lose their sense of smell and, consequently, their sense of taste, Pierre says. Unfortunately, this often leads to people putting even more salt on their food. "They can add flavors in other ways, with different spices, especially hot spices—which don't upset your stomach; that's a myth," she adds. Offering low-salt spice blends to keep on the table would be helpful to elderly consumers. Just be sure they're available in easy-access containers.

Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 52, 54

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