Expert Q&A

Elderly parent weight loss: When should you worry?

My elderly mother in a nursing home is losing weight. When should I worry?

-Lola from Indiana

When a parent requires long term care in a nursing home, it can be a burden psychologically and financially on the children. Roles reverse as children take on some of the responsibility of assuring their parent’s health and well-being. Proper nutrition is a basic need so when a parent loses weight in a nursing home, it can be cause for alarm.

Appetites tend to diminish in older years for most people. Adding a move from one’s home, food prepared differently and absence of some old favorites can lead to depression and less interest in eating. Modern nursing homes monitor the weight of residents and if there is a downward trend, some action is usually taken.

However, if a resident is obese to start, some weight loss might be a good thing. Some older people eat high calorie, nutrition-poor meals at home either because of preference, difficulty preparing meals or health problems, such as dementia. Once in the nursing home, on a proper diet a resident might be losing weight because she is eating properly for the first time in years. On the other hand, depression, lack of appetite, loss of the senses of smell and taste, and food preferences might cause someone to get less than the proper nutrition and weight loss can be a first sign.

Your mother’s nursing home will have a record of her weight and how well she is eating. Discuss it with the nursing staff. Avoid bringing snacks from home that might fill her up and prevent her from eating the prepared meals. If there is a problem causing the weight loss, the nursing home can work with their nutritionist and your mother’s physician to provide nutritional supplements or appetite stimulants to assure she gets the nourishment she needs.

John Messmer, MD
Contributing Expert

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