It isn’t only the young and the impoverished who go hungry in the United States. Despite our nation’s abundance of wealth and high standards for medical care, malnutrition remains a widespread problem in American nursing homes, affecting an estimated 533,000 senior citizens. Malnutrition can lead to a host of serious health issues, and in prolonged cases, can even lead to the wrongful death of the victim.
Warning Signs of Nutritional Deficiencies
Malnutrition, which is also called malnourishment, occurs when a person’s diet is deficient in any of the components necessary to maintain good health. These dietary components might be vitamins, minerals, calories, proteins, carbohydrates, or any combination thereof.
While fad weight loss plans might have you believe that it’s healthy to eliminate certain elements from your diet – for instance, “cutting carbs” – the reality is that all dietary nutrients, even much-maligned fats and sugars, play an important role in regulating physical functions. Here’s a quick overview of what each key nutrient is responsible for:
- Calories are units of measure describing how much energy is stored in different foods. If a person expends more energy (burns more calories) than they take in, they will eventually start to lose weight. When a person is calorie-deficient, or has a low caloric intake, he or she may suffer from:
- Brittle nails and hair.
- Chronic fatigue.
- Increased risk of developing gallstones.
- Irregular heartbeat and heart palpitations.
- Weakened immune system.
- Carbohydrates, which are made up of different sugars (e.g. glucose, sucrose), are one of the body’s main energy sources. Carbohydrates also help to absorb calcium, which helps reduce the risk of fractures by promoting bone strength. The effects of carbohydrate deficiency include:
- Chronic fatigue.
- Ketosis, a condition which often affects diabetes patients, in which the body gets its energy by breaking down fat stores instead of glucose.
- Proteins are macromolecules made of amino acid chains. Protein, which is part of your hair, organs, and bones, is necessary for creating new cells as well as repairing damaged cells. Protein deficiency can lead to:
- Muscle wasting, where the body devours its own muscle tissue in a desperate attempt to gather amino acids. As the muscles deteriorate, the victim loses energy and physical strength.
- Swelling caused by build-ups of excess fluid, a condition known as edema. Protein deficiency accompanied by edema is called kwashiorkor.
- Vitamins and minerals are often paired together. While vitamins are organic and minerals are non-organic, both are vital to good health. For instance, if a person is deficient in…
- Vitamin A, effects could include vision loss and increased risk of infections.
- Vitamin B, effects could include muscle weakness, shortness of breath, and loss of appetite.
- Vitamin C, he or she could develop scurvy, which causes weakness, gum disease, anemia, and hemorrhage (profuse bleeding) of the mucous membranes (e.g. inside the nose, lips, ears).
- Vitamin D, effects could include depression and increased blood pressure.
- Calcium, effects could include greater susceptibility to bone fractures, muscle cramps, and numbness.
- Iron, he or she could develop anemia, which causes dizziness, weakness, chest pain, and circulatory problems.
What to Do if Your Parent’s Nursing Home Isn’t Providing Adequate Meals
People of all ages can be harmed by nutritional deficiencies. However, in light of the additional health problems which are frequently present in seniors – such as diminished bone density, compromised immune systems, and cardiovascular disease – older adults are at an increased risk of being sickened, injured, or killed by the effects of malnutrition.
Unfortunately, nursing home residents don’t always have personal control over their diets. While you or I can simply open the fridge or pick up more groceries, nursing home residents – many of whom suffer from dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, vision loss, and stroke – rely upon nursing home staff to select, prepare, and assist with meals.
When nursing homes are understaffed, residents who are unable to feed themselves may be neglected or forgotten, which leads to missed meals. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that over half of all American nursing homes, about 54%, fall below minimum staffing recommendations – and alarmingly, the number of malnourished nursing home residents may far exceed even that number.
According to a June 2000 report prepared by the National Citizens’ Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, “Studies using a variety of measurements and sampling frames have shown that [anywhere from] 35% to 85% of nursing home residents are malnourished.” The same report noted that “30% to 50% are substandard in body weight, midarm muscle circumference, and serum-albumin level… [which] cause[s] edema” and low blood pressure.
If your parent or grandparent isn’t receiving a proper diet at his or her nursing home, you should express your concerns to the director of the home immediately. The Federal Nursing Home Reform Act (FNHRA), which is codified at 42 U.S. Code § 1395i–3, explicitly states under Section 4(a)(iv) that “a skilled nursing facility must provide… dietary services that assure that the meals meet the daily nutritional and special dietary needs of each resident.” If the director refuses to make satisfactory changes to your loved one’s care plan, you should strongly consider:
- Contacting your state’s long-term care ombudsman.
- Filing a complaint with your state’s Department of Health. (Simply follow the links to file a complaint in Pennsylvania or file a complaint in New Jersey.)
- Placing your loved one in a different home. (You can browse and compare homes by using the government’s free Nursing Home Compare tool.)
To set up a free, completely confidential consultation with Brent, call (800) 481-5206 today. Brent represents clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes. It is not legal advice and should not be used as legal advice.***