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Holiday success: The importance of food sensitivities for older people

There is nothing better than digging in to a roast turkey on Christmas day with your family and friends. It can be a quintessential experience for many older Australians, however, age may impact their ability to partake in this festive tradition.

Last updated: December 5th 2023
Making sure older loved ones are able to eat during Christmas events is no different to asking people in your family about what they can and can’t eat. [Source: Unsplash]

Making sure older loved ones are able to eat during Christmas events is no different to asking people in your family about what they can and can’t eat. [Source: Unsplash]

Key points:

  • Older family members may have changing dietary requirements every new festive season
  • Modifying food can be a good way of ensuring older loved ones can eat without missing out
  • Make sure that older people are able to experience special seasonal foods for Christmas time

Some older people may not be able to eat the special dishes that appear on the Christmas table, whether it is because of a change of diet, issues with malnourishment, new illnesses or medications, or something else. 

To make sure your festive events are enjoyable for everyone in your family, it is important to cater for your older loved ones so they don’t feel left out.

What food changes can impact older people?

It is not uncommon for you to hear an older loved one mention that they can no longer eat something like they use to.

Our bodies change as we age and sometimes that means you can’t eat as you did when you were young.

You will likely find this with older people who may not be able to eat rich food, digest strong or acidic ingredients (like tomato, garlic or onion), or don’t break down dairy products well.

Having a dry mouth can also impact an older person’s ability to eat, which can be caused by the medication they are taking. This could be solved by sucking on lollies, like a candy cane, to help encourage saliva production.

Older people may be quite sad that they have lost the ability to eat foods that they used to enjoy, so it is important that you can accommodate changes where possible.

Changes to diet

It makes sense to ask people who attend your events if they can’t eat something, like if someone has a nut allergy or can’t eat lactose or gluten, or if they have specific diets, like being vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan.

Making sure older loved ones are able to eat during Christmas events is no different to asking people in your family about what they can and can’t eat.

You should be having a conversation with your loved ones about it as soon as possible so you can better prepare beforehand.

Your older loved one may be able to still have dairy in small quantities or need onion removed from all dishes to ensure an upset stomach is avoided. 

It may even be the case that your older loved one is not getting the nutrition they need at home and one way to help is through a variety of meals, like what you would find during a Christmas banquet.

Having a meal selection that is diverse in meats, vegetables, fruits, and beans and lentils, can make a huge difference in their nutrition intake on the day.

All families should be communicating with each other about the dishes they bring and whether it will meet the dietary requirements of their older loved ones.

Easy-to-eat food

An older family member may not have issues with eating specific types of food, but actually struggle with the physical eating process.

Some older people lose the ability to eat, called dysphagia, and can no longer swallow easily. This can lead to a whole range of issues, like dehydration and malnutrition, but can also impact an older person’s mental health.

For many older people with dysphagia, they may find Christmas a difficult and isolating time because they cannot eat like they used to.

You may need to have food available that is modified for an older person so that they can participate in the memories associated with sharing a meal with friends and family. 

That could look like less ‘tough’ foods like meat, smaller bite-sized pieces of food, or utilising thickeners to assist with the swallowing process, like gravy or cranberry sauce on meats.

Making food for a person that has difficulties swallowing could also mean a move to mashed potato over potato salad or shredded roast chicken over hunks of meat. These small changes can still be delicious, but ensure everyone gets to enjoy the Christmas spread.

It is important you talk with your older loved one’s aged care facility, home care provider, or General Practitioner (GP) about the best way to meet their modified diet needs.

Make sure the setting is just right

Just like the environment in an aged care home can make a difference during meal time, it is also important to consider your environment when hosting holiday celebrations.

The holidays can be a fabulous time to decorate your home and make it as festive as possible, this can make the place more welcoming for an older loved one so they feel more comfortable to eat.

In cases where your older loved one has issues with their hearing, crowds or sensory overload, you should be mindful of the room size, the number of guests, and how loud it is. 

If you are hosting the event inside, you may want to try spreading people out at different tables, instead of squeezing everyone all together. Or ensuring that the Christmas music isn’t too overwhelming in the background.

All these environmental changes can make difference in food consumption on the day for older family members.

Add sparkle to your Christmas meals

During these times with families, it can be a great opportunity to pull out old family favourite recipes.

If your mum is a big fan of trifle during the festive season, it can be a perfect treat to bring out on the day.

Making food inclusive for all doesn’t mean you can’t allow some indulgence, as it is a good day of the year for it!

Christmas can also be a great time to pull out a special alcoholic beverage to serve with the roast dinner. This may be a mimosa over brunch, a chardonnay with lunch, a session ale at dinner, or a sneaky Drambuie with dessert. However, all drinking should be in moderation and not impact an older person’s medication or health.

It is important during Christmas that an older family member doesn’t over-indulge on everything available on the table. It can be really easy to do! But you don’t want your older loved ones leaving the event early because they have made themselves sick.

Moderation is key during the holidays, it ensures an older person can enjoy themselves and their food without negative consequences. You can ensure an older loved one doesn’t indulge by filling their plate for them first. If they want more, they can go in for seconds.

How do you ensure your older loved ones can enjoy their Christmas lunch? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:
Making Christmas more dementia-friendly
How can you make Christmas accessible for older guests?
How to plan for busy holidays


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