While eating disorders might seem like it generally affects teenagers, older adults are in no way immune. In fact, many people who suffer from an eating disorder in their teen years can relapse later in life, especially if they never fully recovered. For example, an eating disorder might crop up again as a means to emotionally cope after a loved one passes away.
Family members, caregivers, and even doctors, can mistake the signs and symptoms for something else, and aging adults suffering from eating disorders often try to hide it, or are in denial.
It’s imperative that caregivers be on the lookout for whether their loved one has an eating disorder—the consequences for older adults can be life-threatening. While they can wreak havoc on anyone, the damage is more severe on older bodies. Being too thin can increase your loved one’s risk of osteoporosis, bone fractures, organ dysfunction, and prevent their brain from functioning properly. Bulimia, meanwhile, can cause serious heart problems and bone density loss. The only way to prevent further damage, both physically and emotionally, is to get to the root of the problem—and seek treatment.
Signs and Symptoms That Your Loved One Has an Eating Disorder
There are a variety of physical signs that caregivers can look for if they suspect their loved one may have an eating disorder. And, because eating disorders are almost always caused by an underlying emotional problem (like stress, anxiety, or grief), it can be helpful to look beyond the physical symptoms and explore what else is going on in your loved one’s life.
Visible Behaviors and Physical Signs
- Constant fatigue: While there can be many causes of fatigue in older adults, lack of nutrition and calories will cause your loved one to feel more tired than usual.
- Trips to the bathroom: Going to the bathroom after meals can be a sign that your loved one is struggling with bulimia.
- Eating alone: Secretive behavior, like eating only in private, can point toward an eating disorder.
- Hiding food: You might find that your loved one is hiding food in unexpected places, either to eat later or not eat at all. This can either suggest bulimia or anorexia.
- No food at home: If your loved one doesn’t keep enough food in the house—or it’s all low-calorie items—if not for economic reasons, may be a sign of an eating disorder.
- Feeling cold: Not enough body weight can make a person more sensitive to cold.
- Dental problems: Both bulimia and anorexia can cause problems with the health of your loved one’s teeth.
External Circumstance and Emotional Triggers
- Loss of partner: The stress of grieving the death of a husband or wife can cause an eating disorder to start, or an older adult to relapse into past behaviors.
- Family problems: Fighting or conflict between children or family members can fuel eating disorder behavior as the person attempts to control the situation through food.
- Difficult living situation: Being forced to live somewhere that’s not their choice—maybe a nursing home, or moving away from their own home—can cause some older adults to respond by not eating or engaging in disordered eating behavior.
- Eating disorder history: If your loved one had an eating disorder when they were younger, it’s common to relapse later in life even after recovery.
Other Reasons Why Older Adults Eat Too Little
In addition to illnesses like cancer or IBD, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, that can cause extreme weight-loss in a short period of time, there are other reasons why older adults might start to eat too little. It’s important to be aware of these issues when trying to assess whether or not your loved one is suffering from anorexia or bulimia.
- Memory issues: This can prevent your loved one from knowing when they last ate or if they still need to eat.
- Dental problems: If your aging loved one has any kind of tooth pain or problematic dentures, this can also hinder their ability to eat.
- Financial concerns: Some older adults have a small fixed income or not enough money for all of their basic necessities, like healthy food.
- Stomach or digestive issues: Your loved one might avoid eating if they have a type of medical condition that causes stomach pain or creates issue with going to the bathroom.
- Reduced mobility: If your loved one is aging in place and unable to get to a grocery store, they may not have enough food in the house.
- Medication side effects: Some medications cause loss of appetite, digestive problems, or unpleasant side effects from eating.
- Loneliness or isolation: Not having someone to eat meals with or cook for, especially after someone has lost their partner, can reduce your loved one’s incentive to eat properly.
How to Offer Supportive Help to Your Aging Loved One
It can be challenging for caregivers to help an aging loved one with an eating disorder because of the nature of the disease—they may be in denial about their disorder, and push away offers of support. However, there are steps you can take to encourage your loved one to open up over time, and accept help.
- Observe regularly: It’s important to rule out other obvious reasons for weight-loss or reduced food consumption, like ill-fitting dentures or financial challenges. By observing your loved one’s behaviors for a while, you’ll have a better sense of what the real underlying problem is.
- Ask questions: Communication is key to uncovering whether your loved one is suffering from an eating disorder. Make room for them to share their feelings, and ask gentle questions about matters that might be causing them stress. To prevent defensiveness, avoid asking about food right away, or ask other family members whether your aging loved one had an eating disorder when they were younger.
- Offer compassion: If your loved one isn’t open to treatment right away, offer unconditional support and let them know you’ll be there either way.
- Seek outside help: You might find yourself in a position where your loved one’s behaviors around food are causing them harm, but they won’t accept help. In this case, you can choose to call in other family members, a doctor, or an outside mediator to make a stronger case to your loved one for seeking treatment.
Treatment Resources for Older Adults in the Bay Area
The Bay Area has a variety of centers that specialize in treating eating disorders. Most of these are open to adults of any age, as well as teenagers. There are different types of programs, such as outpatient treatment, extended full-time care, or day services. Sometimes targeted treatment is the only way your loved one can recover—so don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of these Bay Area-based eating disorder centers.
- The Center for Anorexia and Bulimia (Summit Campus)
– 3100 Summit Street, Oakland, CA
– Phone: (510) 655-4000
– 334 North 2nd Street, San Jose, CA
– Phone: (408) 834-0616
– 45 Franklin, San Francisco, CA
– Phone: (415) 840-0670
– 213 Seventeen Mile Dr., Pacific Grove, CA
– Phone: (831) 718-9595
– 3610 American River Drive, Suite 140 Sacramento, CA
– Phone: (916) 790-2895
Keep an open mind and a compassionate heart when discussing sensitive issues related to food with your loved one—don’t feel frustrated if it takes a few conversations to discover the source of the problem. Eating disorders can be especially devastating to older adults, and getting treatment can be essential to recovery, however that might take shape.
Whether your loved one might benefit from seeing a therapist at home, registering in a day program, or living full-time at a treatment center, exploring options can help both of you feel empowered. As a caregiver, you can always help by letting your aging loved one know you fully support them. Providing a safe space for them to share their feelings can be a gateway to acceptance and, ultimately, healing.
If you’re unsure how to help your aging loved one eat better, Institute on Aging offers a wide range of services, programs, and online resources. Connect with us today to learn more.