Treatment Options For Elderly With an Eating Disorder

Elderly woman undergoing eating disorder treatment

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Director of Content and Social Media at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

When it comes to eating disorders, these diseases to not discriminate on any factors, including age. A person of any age can be susceptible to having or developing an eating disorder, including elderly individuals.

However, partially due to the stigma that surrounds eating disorders, many people misunderstand the nature of these diseases and assume that this is something that only impacts adolescent females.

This could not be farther from the truth, and more discussion about the potential impact of eating disorders in the elderly is needed for support, treatment, and help for those who may be suffering.

Understanding Eating Disorders in the Elderly

A study completed by the University Medical Clinic at Innsbruck, Austria, showed that women between the ages of 60 and 70 years had eating behaviors and body image attitudes similar to those of much younger women [1].

Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder can develop in an elderly individual; in other situations, an elderly person may have had an eating disorder in younger years or may have been in remission from an eating disorder, only to have it resurface when faced with various stressors in their later years.

Elderly womanElderly individuals do in fact encounter many different kinds of challenges in this season of life that can be triggering, especially for a person who is already biologically susceptible to developing an eating disorder.

For example, loneliness or experiencing lack of compassion can be a stressor that many elderly individuals face, particularly those who may feel displaced, be out of touch with family members or who have gone through the loss of close loved ones. Other stressors might be the experience of increased health issues – both physical and mental, which can be overwhelming to live with on a day to day basis.

In many cases, there may be multiple changes and stressors that are in fact challenging to cope with, making food a tangible means of having something to control in an unknown environment. Other environmental stressors include lack of finances and resources to purchase adequate and consistent food, decreased mobility and ability to actually cook and prepare meals for oneself, and inadequate supervision and/or help when it comes to feeding.

Identifying Concerning Issues

When an elderly individual displays any changes in feeding and eating behaviors, this is not something that should be taken lightly. If an elderly person suddenly stops eating, begins cutting out meals and/or snacks, seems to avoid food or appears anxious/tense around mealtimes, these behaviors should not be ignored. Drastic weight changes can also be telling of a possible eating disorder but is not necessarily a criteria for a problematic eating issue in an elderly person.

If an elderly person is living alone and has gone a significant period of time without eating or grocery shopping, this may also be an indicator that something may not be right. If you work with or care for elderly individuals, keep these signs in mind and consider further investigating any behaviors that may be reflective of a disturbance in normal eating habits.

Connecting To Help and Treatment

lavender-1490788_1280Reaching out for eating disorder treatment in the elderly years may seem futile to some, but it is absolutely crucial for improving overall quality of life. Finding an eating disorder specialist who works with geriatric patients and understands the specific needs and concerns of this patient population can be helpful for the elderly individual recovering from an eating disorder. Connecting to treatment as early as possible can help an elderly individual from experiencing many of the more detrimental side effects associated with abnormal eating behaviors.

As with any patient population that has eating disorders, some are expected to make a full recovery, some will notice some progression and improvement with behaviors, and others will continue to remain engaged in the eating disorder.

Regardless of what the outcome might be, every elderly person, no matter their age or background, should be given the opportunity to recover and receive treatment. Work with your treatment team and healthcare specialists to determine the course of treatment most effective for an elderly person with an eating disorder.

Community Discussion – Share Your Thoughts Here!

If you have assisted an elderly individual with an eating disorder, what resources did you find helpful for supporting their recovery?

Crystal Headshot 2About the Author: 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 Director of Content and Social Media 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.


[1]: Anorexia nervosa and related eating disorders, “Eating Disorders and Older People”,

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.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 25, 2016
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