Senior woman sitting on chair clutching her stomach in pain.

Gastrointestinal Changes in Seniors

Last updated on June 05, 2024

As we age, our gastrointestinal (GI) system begins to change. Seniors, consequently, may find themselves unexpectedly developing intolerances to foods they've savored over the years.

About 40% of adults experience some kind of GI disorder. Seniors are especially sensitive to age-related GI changes such as slowed metabolism, decreased appetite, and reduced digestive function. These changes can introduce new food sensitivities and symptoms such as gas, bloating, stomachache, or indigestion.

Related Reading: What to Do When Your Aging Parent Needs Help in the Bathroom

Rooting Out the Cause of GI Symptoms

If your senior has sudden GI symptoms, the first step is to rule out acute illnesses like the flu and food poisoning. Some symptoms of acute illness include:

  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting

Call a doctor if a fever, bloody stools, inability to keep down liquids, or diarrhea occurs. Once you’ve eliminated an acute illness, it’s time to look for lifestyle or diet triggers of symptoms.

Keep a Food Diary
A food diary tracks what and when your senior eats and the time and consistency of their bowel movements. Note any changes such as recent surgeries, new medications, or changes in their social circle or mental health. Physical and emotional stressors can also lead to GI troubles.

Don’t worry about writing down quantities or ingredients—this is just a high-level exercise to spot trends and trigger foods that cause symptoms. For example, you might find drinking milk in the morning gives your senior a stomachache by noon. Or, they may get gassy at bedtime after eating broccoli at lunch.

Once you discover a few sensitivities, ask your loved one to eliminate certain foods from their diet for a few weeks. If problems still occur, contact a physician to assess their GI health and nutrition.

Recommended Reading: Eat This, Not That! Why Seniors May Need to Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Common Food Intolerances

Some of the most common foods that cause intolerance in seniors are generally considered healthy. Foods to watch for include:

  • Cruciferous vegetables
    Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and leafy greens contain a complex sugar called raffinose, which are difficult for the body to digest.

  • Beans and legumes
    Fiber is good, but eating too much can cause gas buildup. Kidney beans, peas, lentils, and many fruits and vegetables are high in fiber.

  • Dairy products
    Many can’t digest lactose, a compound commonly found in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and ice cream. Even those who can generally consume dairy products may suddenly find themselves lactose intolerant in their later years.

While these foods are essential to well-rounded nutrition, seniors may not be able to tolerate them in the same quantities as they were accustomed to. Rather than eliminating these foods from your senior’s diet, try excluding one type per meal to see if there’s a difference. A doctor or dietitian can work with you to ensure your loved one gets the necessary nutrients.

Get In-Home Support for Dietary Challenges

Understanding and managing gastrointestinal changes in older adults requires careful attention and tracking. When you're their caregiver, keeping up with every meal and symptom can be challenging to get to the bottom of GI trouble.

If you need additional assistance, Visiting Angels caregivers can help your senior keep a food diary and serve as an extra set of eyes and ears to notice additional symptoms, ensuring your senior receives dedicated care while helping understand digestive changes.

Contact your local home care office to learn how Visiting Angels can support your senior. Schedule a free home care consultation today.

If you're interested in our compassionate home care services for you or a loved one, contact your nearest Visiting Angels home care agency today or call 800-365-4189.
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