The harsh reality about eating disorders is that they impact people regardless of race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, religion, culture and more. Because of the many stigmas that circulate about eating disorders, it is easy to stereotype these severe psychiatric illnesses.
Perhaps one of the most common stigmas about eating disorders is that they develop in young adolescent females only, but we understand this to be far from the truth. Another misconception about eating disorders is that they are “diseases of vanity”, meaning that they develop out of a sheer obsession with weight and /or appearance. Again, this is a false notion.
Eating Disorders Appear at Various Ages
The reality is that people are impacted by eating disorders at various stages of their lives, and these mental illnesses are not something individuals “choose” to have, just like a person would not choose to have cancer or heart disease. Perhaps the most overlooked population or group of individuals to struggle with eating disorders are the elderly, as the signs and symptoms related to eating disorders can easily be mistaken for other things.
Especially in those who are chronically ill, managing multiple illnesses, and/or taking several medications, there can be a very real struggle with eating and maintaining adequate caloric intake. Many elderly individuals may also be experiencing environmental stressors that further trigger the development, progression or relapse of an eating disorder, such as the loss of a loved one, loneliness or isolation, feeling misplaced or unwanted, having an uncertain living situation, end-of-life regrets, and more.
The many feelings that an elderly person might be experiencing in combination with physical illness or declining health can most certainly play a role in the development of an eating disorder.
Awareness and Identification of Eating Disorders
Irrespective of age, treatment is necessary to help a person overcome their struggle with an eating disorder and to improve overall quality of life. Awareness and identification of an eating disorder is often the first step is seeking out the treatment and help for recovery. If you are concerned that an elderly person in your life might be struggling with an eating disorder, be aware of the following signs and symptoms:
- Significant changes in food intake, resulting in drastic weight fluctuations (either weight loss or gain) over a short period of time
- Becoming more isolated from family and loved ones, particularly during a meal
- Avoiding social functions that involve food or eating
- Mood swings or personality changes
- Increased anxiety or stress around food or food choices
- Complaining of constantly feeling cold
- Hoarding food
- Excessive laxatives, diet pills or diuretic use
- The presence of other mental illnesses that may be co-occurring alongside an eating disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and more
Commonly, most elderly individuals who are facing an eating disorder may have suffered from an eating disorder in the past that went untreated or are experiencing the relapse of an earlier eating disorder. It is also possible that an elderly person is experiencing the emergence of an eating disorder for the first time as well, and any signs or symptoms that are revealing of these mental illnesses should be taken seriously.
More Treatment Options Needed For the Elderly
It may be more of a struggle to connect an elderly individual with an eating disorder to the appropriate treatment, particularly as there may be a lack of treatment options that provide individualized care for the elderly patient with eating disorders.
However, this should not deter a person from seeking out the care they need and deserve for recovery, as many of the same principles and approaches are utilized for eating disorder recovery, whether in adolescents or elderly years. It is never too late to begin the road to recovery and treatment, and a person is never too far gone to start getting the help they need for recovery.
If you or a loved one is dealing with an eating disorder, be sure to reach out to get the necessary support and professional help needed to begin your recovery journey.
Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing, Crystal serves as the Special Projects Coordinator for Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope, where her passion to help others find recovery and healing is integrated into each part of her work.
As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH/AH and nutrition private practice.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 24, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com