Dawna Bennett, MS, RD
Sensory loss is an inevitable part of aging and plays a large role in how people function in the world. Our senses connect us to our environment and include sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Losses in vision, hearing and taste are among the most prevalent conditions among elderly Americans. Sensorial deterioration begins to occur around 60 to 70 years of age and can cause problems with communication, social involvement with others, and enjoyment of activities, such as eating.
Food serves a major social role in our lives and sensory loss can also wreak havoc on our nutritional status as we age. Losing our sense of smell and taste can play a key role in the enjoyment of food. The number of taste buds decreases with age and each remaining taste bud also begins to shrink. In addition, the mouth produces less saliva and this can cause dry mouth, which can also affect the sense of taste. Scientists are finding that a little gravy or other sauces on food can help activate the taste buds and enhance the ability to taste and smell foods.
Most people are poorly informed about sensory loss so it is important to educate the entire family on sensory impairment, its screening, disabilities, and treatments. As a caregiver or someone with aging relatives, there are things we can do to help:
•Pay attention to medications and conditions that might contribute to sensory impairment.
•Ensure annual screening by an audiologist so that hearing losses can be recognized early.
•Encourage diabetic patients to see an ophthalmologist annually.
•Schedule bi-annual visual screening for seniors at high risk for glaucoma.
•Use warm contrasting colors (yellow, orange, and red) in the home to improve the ability to see. Keep a red light on in darkened rooms, such as the hallway or bathroom, which make it easier to see than using a regular night light.
•Look for large-print books and newspapers for visually impaired seniors at the bookstore or the library.
•Encourage chewing food slowly to increase salivation, which will increase the flavor and palatability of food and improve digestion.
•Use different spices or change the way food is prepared to increase flavor.
•Involve seniors in food programs at local senior centers or Meals on Wheels. These programs are extremely beneficial for improving nutritional health, social interaction, and ultimately an increase in a seniors’ quality of life.
As we age, the gradual loss of our five senses can have an impact on our health and emotional outlook. It is important to live a lifestyle that promotes education on sensory loss so that our senses can remain as sharp as possible for as long as possible.