By Rachel Lankester, Editor

It can be very distressing when your elderly loved one stops eating. They may already have poor health and you know they need to eat to maintain the level of health they currently have. It can be confusing and worrying when they refuse or can’t eat the nutrition that will keep them going. You may find yourself asking how long the elderly can live when they’re not eating.

In this article, we explore what may be going on, why the elderly stop eating and what you can do to help. How long any person can survive without food or drink depends on their level of overall health. A  healthy adult can go up to 14 days without eating.

When an elderly person isn’t moving around very much or is bedridden, they won’t need much food for energy as so little energy is being used. They will need a lot fewer calories. Hydration is potentially a more urgent issue and lack of fluids can impact quickly. For more information on the importance of water intake for the elderly we have information on that here

elderly not eating how long to live

Clearly nutritional needs change as we approach the end of life, but there may also be other things going on. It may be that your loved one has no desire to eat, no motivation to eat, they may forget to eat or they may even be deliberately avoiding food because it causes them pain, or because they have actually decided they want to accelerate the end of their life and don’t want to extend pain or discomfort. 

We’ll go beyond just food and talk about how to support them emotionally, communicate effectively, and make decisions that respect their dignity. It’s about seeing the person behind the nutritional needs and finding ways to help them feel comfortable and cared for, even in difficult times. 

What it may mean when the elderly stop eating and drinking

When an elderly person stops eating and drinking, it’s often a distressing signal for both them and their caregivers. This can be especially hard when it’s your elderly parent who isn’t eating as happened to me, when my father stopped eating after a diagnosis of bowel cancer. The decision to stop eating and drinking can be laden with profound significance.

For some seniors, it may signify a loss of appetite due to changes in taste, smell, or digestion. Others may experience difficulties with swallowing or find eating physically exhausting. What often goes unacknowledged is the emotional aspect of this decision.

In the later stages of life, people may grapple with a multitude of emotions – from grief and loneliness to existential questions about the meaning of life and death. For some, ceasing to eat or drink may be a conscious choice to assert autonomy and control over their bodies in the face of declining health or impending mortality.

Societal attitudes towards aging and end-of-life care can play a significant role in shaping an individual’s decisions regarding eating and drinking. Cultural norms, religious beliefs, and past experiences with illness and caregiving can influence how seniors perceive their own nutritional needs and the significance of mealtimes.

Caregivers and family members are often left grappling with complex emotions as they navigate this sensitive terrain. Feelings of guilt, helplessness, and uncertainty abound as they struggle to understand and respond to their loved one’s wishes. However, it’s essential to recognize that the decision to stop eating and drinking is not always a cry for intervention but may, in some cases, reflect a deeply personal and meaningful choice. This is especially the case when your family member is already receiving palliative care and you will find it helpful to be guided by the professional leading this. 

In navigating this journey, communication emerges as a crucial tool for fostering understanding and empathy. Engaging in open and honest conversations with the elderly person about their preferences, fears, and desires can provide valuable insights into their decision-making process. It’s about honoring their autonomy and dignity while ensuring that they receive the support and comfort they need.

Things to consider when an elderly person doesn’t want food

When an elderly person no longer wants regular meals or even any nutrition, it can be a cause for serious concern and may indicate underlying health issues. While common concerns like malnutrition, dehydration, and weight loss are often discussed, there are other factors to consider:

1. Underlying medical conditions

Apart from typical age-related health issues, underlying medical conditions such as depression, dementia, or chronic pain can affect appetite. These conditions may not always be immediately apparent but can significantly impact eating habits.

2. Medication side effects

The side effect of certain medications commonly prescribed for older adults can impact appetite and taste perception. For instance, some medications may cause nausea, dry mouth, or alterations in taste, leading to a decreased desire to eat.

3. Oral health problems

Dental issues such as tooth decay, gum disease, ill-fitting dentures, or oral infections can make eating uncomfortable or painful, resulting in decreased food intake.

4. Psychological factors

Emotional distress, loneliness, anxiety, or grief over the loss of loved ones can contribute to a loss of appetite. These psychological factors may not always be apparent but can significantly impact an elderly person’s willingness to eat.

5. Changes in sensory perception

As people age, there can be changes in sensory perception, including taste and smell. Diminished senses of taste and smell can lead to a decreased enjoyment of food, resulting in reduced appetite.

6. Mobility issues

Mobility limitations or difficulty accessing food independently may deter the elderly from eating regularly. This could be due to physical disabilities or environmental factors such as kitchen accessibility.

7. Social isolation

Social isolation or living alone can lead to a lack of motivation to prepare meals or eat regularly. Older people may find they can’t be bothered to prepare a meal just for themselves. Loss of appetite may result from the absence of social interactions around meal times.

8. Cultural and dietary preferences

Cultural or dietary preferences may influence an elderly person’s food choices and appetite. Changes in living arrangements or caregiving situations may affect their ability to adhere to these preferences, impacting their willingness to eat.

9. Loss of independence

Loss of independence in daily activities, including meal preparation and feeding, can lead to feelings of helplessness and loss of appetite. Maintaining autonomy and dignity in meal-related activities is crucial for preserving appetite and nutritional intake.

10. Unaddressed pain

Chronic pain, whether from arthritis or other conditions, can diminish appetite and affect the ability to eat comfortably. I suspect this is what happened for my Dad – it became painful to digest food so it was better not to eat it. Ensuring pain management is optimized is essential in addressing this concern.

What to do when an elderly person stops eating

When an elderly person stops eating, it’s crucial to address the situation promptly and comprehensively. Here are some specific steps to take:

Assess the situation: Determine why the elderly person has stopped eating. It could be due to various reasons such as physical illness, dental problems, medication side effects, depression, or simply a loss of appetite. Observe their behavior and ask them about any discomfort or issues they might be facing.

Consult with healthcare professionals: Reach out to the elderly person’s primary care physician or a nutritionist for expert advice. They can help diagnose underlying medical conditions and recommend appropriate treatment or dietary adjustments. If there is a social worker already involved, they may also be able to provide advice.

Consider emotional and psychological factors: Aging often brings emotional challenges such as loneliness, grief, or feelings of worthlessness, which can affect appetite. Low mood can contribute to a lack of appetite at any age. Engage in compassionate conversations to understand any emotional distress the elderly person may be experiencing.

Create a supportive environment: Ensure that mealtime is pleasant and conducive to eating. Create a comfortable and inviting atmosphere, minimize distractions, and offer assistance if needed, such as cutting food into smaller pieces or providing adaptive utensils. But be sure to ask before cutting any food or attempting to feed someone – many people really don’t want this and it could make them more determined not to eat. 

Offer nutrient-rich foods: Provide a variety of nutritious foods that are easy to chew and digest. But make sure they’re tasty too. Include plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and dairy or alternatives to meet their nutritional needs.

Encourage social interaction: Eating alone can be unappealing for many seniors. Encourage socialization during meal times by having family members or friends join them, or consider community dining programs where they can interact with peers.

Monitor fluid intake: Dehydration can exacerbate loss of appetite and lead to serious health issues. Encourage the elderly person to drink water regularly throughout the day and offer hydrating foods such as soups, fruits, and smoothies.

Address oral health: Poor dental health or discomfort while eating can deter seniors from consuming meals. Schedule regular dental check-ups and ensure they have proper oral care products to maintain good oral hygiene.

Be patient and understanding: It’s essential to be patient and understanding during this time. Avoid expressing frustration or placing blame on the elderly person. Instead, offer reassurance and support as they navigate through any challenges.

Seek professional help if necessary: If efforts to encourage eating are unsuccessful or if there are concerns about the elderly person’s health and well-being, seek assistance from a geriatric specialist, dietitian, or counselor who can provide tailored support and intervention.

When is the right time to stop feeding someone receiving hospice care?

The decision to stop feeding a dying person receiving end of life care is a complex and sensitive matter that should be approached with careful consideration of the patient’s condition, goals of care, and wishes. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, it’s typically appropriate to consider stopping feeding when the patient’s condition reaches a point where the burdens of continued feeding outweigh the benefits. If you’re lucky, you will have already discussed this with the dying person before reaching this stage, and they may even have a written End of Life plan.

This may include situations where the patient is no longer able to swallow or digest food comfortably, when artificial nutrition and hydration cause discomfort or distress without providing significant clinical benefit, or when the patient’s overall prognosis indicates that prolonging feeding would not improve their quality of life. It’s essential to involve the patient and their loved ones in discussions about feeding decisions, ensuring that their preferences and values are respected. The family may want feeding to continue with tube feeding for example but this may be the last thing the patient wants as they enter the final stages of life.

Healthcare providers should consider alternative methods of providing comfort and support, such as mouth care, moistening of lips with lip balm or ice chips for example, or palliative measures, to ensure the patient’s comfort and dignity are maintained throughout their end-of-life journey.

When hospice patients stop eating and drinking, how long do they live?

When hospice patients stop eating and drinking, which is a normal part of the dying process, their life expectancy can vary widely depending on various factors such as their overall health condition, underlying illnesses, hydration levels, and individual resilience. While it’s commonly believed that a person can survive for around one to two weeks without sustenance, this estimate may not always hold true for individuals receiving hospice care. The process of dying is complex and multifaceted; it involves physiological changes such as decreased metabolism and altered consciousness levels. 

Additionally, the cessation of eating and drinking is often part of the natural progression towards the end of life, as the body’s systems gradually shut down. Importantly, focusing solely on a timeline may overlook the emotional, spiritual, and social aspects of the dying process, which can profoundly influence someone’s experience and longevity. Hospice care aims to provide comfort and support during this time, prioritizing quality of life over prolonging it artificially. Therefore, while understanding general timelines can be informative, it’s crucial to approach each person’s end-of-life journey with compassion, individualized care, and respect for their unique circumstances and needs.

We hope you found this article helpful. For more support around the process of dying please check out our podcast: Talking about death with Dr Kathryn Mannix a palliative care specialist. You can read the transcription of that podcast here: Talking about death – how to do it better.

Rachel Lankester is the founder of Magnificent Midlife, author, host of the Magnificent Midlife Podcast, a midlife mentor and editor of the Mutton Club online magazine. After an initially devastating early menopause at 41, she dedicated herself to helping women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life, helping them cope better with menopause and ageing in general, and create magnificent next chapters. She’s been featured in/on BBC Woman’s Hour, The Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, The Age Buster, Woman’s Weekly, Prima Magazine, eShe, Tatler HK and Woman’s Own amongst others. She believes we just get better with age. Get her book Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond which was recommended in the New York Times.

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Last Updated on May 1, 2024 by Editorial Staff

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