Irene Van Develde, 83, is used to doing things her way in the kitchen. From hosting her Thanksgiving-in-summer dinner for up to 18 at her Michigan cottage to cooking up a storm for visitors in her Tavares home, Van Develde prefers to be in control.
But since her husband died three years ago, she has felt less inspired to make her own meals with the same gusto. Though she considers herself healthy, she admits she doesn’t always eat right.
“I am not crazy about vegetables,” said Van Develde, who took part recently in a Lake County program to prepare healthier meals for just one or two people. Eating right is especially important for seniors, experts say, because balanced nutrition plays a vital role in managing chronic diseases.
Growing older poses a new set of challenges for adults looking to meet their dietary needs. In metro Orlando, only 26.8 percent of adults 65 and over ate three or more servings of veggies a day in 2009, and 24.2 percent of older adults were obese in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Helping seniors learn to eat better, Julie England led a discussion at the Lake County Agricultural Center on how to blend convenience with healthy choices. Attendees left with recipes for meals such as microwave coffee-cup scramble and English-muffin pizzas.
“When I originally started this class, my thought was it was going to be college cooking,” said England, Lake County family and consumer sciences extension agent. “And the first four people that walked in the class were over 65.”
That was a tipoff to the huge interest among seniors for eating healthy but making smaller portions. That requires adjustment for people accustomed to cooking – like Van Develde – for a large family. She reared three children in Michigan.
“With the kids, when they were younger, I would get out of shape if they didn’t eat their vegetables,” she said. “… I always fixed them for my husband because he loved vegetables.”
But after her children moved out and her husband died years later, Van Develde got out of the habit of incorporating vegetables into her meals.
Such lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on nutrition, said chef Marci Arthur, who partnered with Compass Research to offer two “Memory Meals” courses geared toward older adults.
“When we’re raising kids and busy, we want them to be healthy,” said Arthur, 74, who teaches cooking at Truffles & Trifles, a gourmet store and cooking school she owns in Orlando. “So we tend to be focused on good nutrition.” She said food is just one component of a healthy diet.
“I think the most important thing, truly, is to be in touch with your friends,” Arthur said. “… Because when you’re alone you to tend to get depressed, lose (your) appetite.”
Kathy Black, a University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee professor of social work and gerontology, said loss of a loved one can impact the diet of an older adult.
“People who have been married for decades, they ate all of their meals together,” Black said. “Now one of them is eating alone.”
For some who don’t drive or are unable to easily get out of the house, transportation can be an obstacle to eating right, she said. It can be easiest to stock up on frozen dinners – which tend to be high in sodium – that can be popped into the microwave. Others deal with arthritic hands or have trouble measuring ingredients because of failing eyesight.
Lifelong smokers may find their food is no longer as tasty as it once was. People may overcompensate for diminished taste by adding too much salt, for example.
Kaye-Ann Taylor, an Orlando nutrition therapist, looks at clients’ mouths to ensure they can chew and swallow properly. She looks at how many medications they’re taking, including those bought over the counter. Dialogue with patients is critical – through conversation she said she may find that an overweight person is actually undernourished.
For seniors living on a fixed income, fruits and vegetables may feel like a luxury. Or people may cook too much and toss what they don’t eat.
Van Develde typically starts her day with shredded biscuit cereal with milk poured over and butter on top. Sometimes she has grilled cheese or a BLT for breakfast. She often incorporates a sweet potato into her diet and eats dinner no later than 4 p.m.
“I know how to use my stove – it isn’t that. But I just have to learn to buy more sensibly and eat … eat the food rather than throw it away,” she said.
Regardless of the potential challenges, it is essential for Van Develde and other older adults to aim for a healthy diet as they get older.
Courses like the one in Lake offer a step in the right direction, England said.
“Nutrition’s important for everybody,” she said. “But especially say if you’re managing a chronic disease, good nutrition is really vital for your whole care plan.”