May is Older Americans Month, a time to reflect on senior citizens. It is also a time for seniors to consider staying healthy.
When Older Americans Month was established in 1963, only 17 million living Americans had reached their 65th birthday. About a third of older Americans lived in poverty and there were few programs to meet their needs.
A meeting in April 1963 between President John F. Kennedy and members of the National Council of Senior Citizens led to designating May as Senior Citizens Month, the prelude to Older Americans Month.
This month, the Administration for Community Living will celebrate the strength of older adults and the Aging Network, with special emphasis on the power of connection and engagement in building strong communities. The theme for 2021 is “Communities of Strength.”
According to the ACL, there are many things one can do to nurture themes, reinforce their strength and continue to thrive.
One of the things older Americans can do to stay healthy and fit is to watch what they eat.
“The goal is to help keep people in their homes,” said Rebecca Kerkenbush, registered dietitian at Watertown Regional Medical Center and advanced practiced certified specialist in Gerontological Nutrition Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is also president-elect to the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
There are unique calorie needs for those age 65 and older. Age 65 is the approximate age to reconsider food intake, as some people retire younger and change eating and exercise habits.
Watertown has a large older community, Kerkenbush noted, who has been at the medical center for 15 1/2 years. “People have roots here and they want their care here, in the community they know.
“What we put in our body fuels us,” the nutritionist said. “What we eat can affect our mood and our energy.
“Nutrition is the key to being healthy for older adults,” Kerkenbush said. “It is something one can control and be a part of.”
People eat for all sorts of reasons, Kerkenbush said, including for depression or loneliness, or maybe for a happy occasion or celebration. Whatever the reason, older adults need to be conscious of what they are putting in their bodies.
“As we get older, there is a change in body chemistry and hormones,” Kerkenbush said. “It is common to be less hungry. But in order to keep your system running, you need to put food in to get something out.”
Older Americans need to strive for five servings of fruits and vegetables, two to three servings of dairy, lean meat and whole grains and starches each day.
One of the main things older people need is vitamin D which helps with absorption of calcium.
Calcium is the most common mineral in the body. It helps to build and fix bones and teeth, move muscles, release hormones and clot blood. Bodies do not produce calcium, so people need to consume adequate amounts daily. The goal is to have three servings a day of calcium-rich foods. Sources include low-fat or non-fat dairy products like milk and yogurt, fortified cereals and fruit juices, dark green leafy vegetables, canned fish with soft bones and fortified plant-based beverages.
Vitamin D lays a role in the prevention of falls and bone fractures, as well as the prevention of osteoporosis. It supports immune health, heart health and mood. The main sources are fatty fish, such as salmon, egg yolks, some mushrooms and fortified foods and beverages. Bodies can produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, Kerkenbush said. As people age, their body’s production of vitamin D decreases.
Lack of vitamin D can affect a person’s mood. It is also a factor in seasonal disorders. A simple blood draw can determine if a person needs a supplement of vitamin D.
Fiber is also good for digestive health, Kerkenbush said. Many times, older Americans do not drink enough fluids. “That is more common than people realize,” she said.
There are fiber supplements, but it is better to get fiber through foods. A high fiber diet helps maintain bowel health, promote bowel regularity, lowers cholesterol levels, helps control blood sugar levels, aids in achieving a healthy weight, and may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The Institute of Medicine recommends men age 51 and older obtain 30 grams of fiber daily and women age 51 and older aim for 21 grams of fiber per day. Fiber can be found in whole-grain breads and cereals, brown rice, wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, barley, whole fruits and vegetables.
“There is no bad fruit and vegetables,” Kerkenbush said. “Don’t eat less if eating healthy choices.”
Vitamin B12 is an essential water-soluble vitamin that a body does not produce. B12 helps with red blood cell formation and anemia prevention. Older adults are susceptible to B12 shortages, either due to inadequate dietary intake or reduced stomach acid, which the body needs to absorb the vitamin. Sources for B12 are fortified cereal, eggs, liver, lean meat, fish and seafood.
Keeping hydrated is a main concern for Older Americans. The best fluid is water, followed by milk and 100% juices. “Too much coffee is dehydrating,” Kerkenbush said.
To help with eating habits, older Americans are encouraged to eat with others. They can make dinner dates or attend senior dining sites.
“People do not have to be 100% perfect on every meal,” Kerkenbush said. Splurging on a meal of cake and ice cream is not going to hurt the body. “But if one has a bad eating day, they should try to get back to healthy eating soon.”