Written by Dr Kiera Buchanan
It seems that eating disorders and the elderly can be a common problem particularly when the world is saying, ‘you look great’. That was the message that came from my grandmother, who I fondly refer to as Nanny. Whilst we were speaking on the phone the other day, she revealed that she hadn’t been well and had lost quite a bit of weight. Her doctor was very concerned at her significant weight loss and because she is an elderly lady, he ordered tests to ascertain the cause of this weight loss. I too expressed my anxiety about her health. This was combined with my knowledge that eating disorders are also likely in the elderly.
Nanny went on to tell me that she had been feeling really fatigued, had lost motivation and was having difficulty concentrating. She also admitted that her nails were breaking and her hair was thinning. Increasingly alarmed, I exclaimed, ‘Nanny, you must be really malnourished’, to which she agreed. She seemingly understood the seriousness of not eating and her sudden weight loss, but she had no desire or appetite to eat. I suggested that she supplement her food intake with SustagenTM (a nutritional supplement beverage), but was dismayed when she responded with, ‘that will put weight on and I don’t want that because everyone has been telling me how good I look’.
My Nanny, a widow in her mid-80’s, lives alone and is now clearly unwell but all that people were focused on was how ‘good’ she looked! Unexplained weight loss is a sign of disease and illness including (but not limited to) cancer, viral infections (such as HIV), organ failure and bowel disease. This is especially so with children and the elderly. Most medical doctors respond to sudden and unexplained weight loss with alarm and apprehension.
My escalating concern led me to an angry outburst in the hope that I could persuade my Nanny to undertake a meal supplement to help reverse her malnutrition until her appetite returns. I remain, however, incredibly saddened to think that even at the age of 85, people are willing to sacrifice their health and life expectancy to meet society’s preference for thinness.
In the meantime, there are measures we can all take to protect ourselves and our loved ones to reduce the onset and duration of eating disorders:
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1. Don’t make assumptions that someone’s weight loss is intentional or the result of healthy measures. If you notice that someone has lost a significant amount of weight, enquire about how they are doing. You might say something like, ‘It looks like you’ve lost quite a lot of weight and I feel concerned about you. Are you OK?’
2. Don’t celebrate or praise weight loss, even if the person insists that it was through healthy measures. Research shows that 95% of people regain back the lost weight within two years. Through telling people that they look better when thinner, their inevitable weight regain will be even harder for them to deal with. Instead, you might respond with something such as, ‘I’m happy to hear that you’re taking care of yourself and are feeling better within yourself, irrespective of your weight loss’.
3. If you’re concerned about someone’s weight loss, say so. While people might not always respond positively at the time, it plants the seed for later consideration at which time, they’ll know that they have your support. As a psychologist working predominately with eating disorders, my clients often tell me, that no one ever expressed concern about their weight loss. This only delays the time it took for them to seek treatment and support.
However, Western society’s obsession with thinness, has the public applauding weight loss without considering its cause or consequences. It’s little wonder that eating disorders are so resistant to treatment. They are the only psychiatric conditions for which people are praised for having.
This highlights the importance of using malnourishment to gain an image that is deemed beautiful. It is time that we examined the harm in the messages society send and broaden our views of the ‘body beautiful’ industry.
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