A Silent Predator: Eating Disorders Among the Elderly

“You can’t hide an eating disorder from someone who has one.” These were the words said to me while I gazed out a window into the bone-chillingly cold Milwaukee night. The glow of the street lights softly illuminated that stretch of West Wisconsin Ave that I knew every inch of by heart. I watched the #10 bus pull up to the corner of 12th and Wisconsin and wished more than anything that I was in that bus instead. This was one of those moments you don’t forget. I’ve struggled with Anorexia most of my life. I had heard the whispers behind my back, had seen the concern shining bright in my friends and family’s eyes. But this moment. The moment where someone you love confronts you with the hard truth. This is moment is the most haunting.

This story isn’t about me though. But my thoughts on this subject and the lens I see it through can’t be properly conveyed without sharing this very personal memory. As I reached a point where I embraced recovery, I have found the quote, that haunting quote “You can’t hide an eating disorder from someone who has one” more relevant than ever, especially working in the Home Health Care Industry.

Here’s a fact: Eating disorders don’t have a face. They don’t discriminate based on gender, age or race. Eating disorders will happily hoist their heavy burden on anyone.

Here’s another fact that might make you uncomfortable: Elders do develop eating disorders. It’s easy to explain away this fact by citing someone’s age and giving them a pass. It’s a lot harder to remove the blindfold and face the fact that a loved one, especially a parent, is struggling with an eating disorder.

Unsettled yet?

How big is the problem? 78% of those who die of Anorexia are elderly. Further, Anorexia is now the leading secondary cause of death among those 65 and older. [1] Shocking numbers to anyone, they reveal a hidden epidemic that needs to be brought to light and treated with serious concern.

Why and how do elders develop eating disorders? There are many contributors. Some have had a lifelong struggle with an eating disorder. Other factors include depression, medication leading to lack of appetite, poor body image, stress and loss of a loved one, just to name a few. Eating disorders provide a form of control in times of stress, depression and change. No matter the age, the control is so intoxicating you don’t realize that it’s not even you that has control, but the eating disorder controlling you. and once it has a grip on you it doesn’t let go.

Once we accept the fact the Elders can and do indeed develop eating disorders, the next questions are how do we recognize the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder? Today’s Geriatric Medicine has a list of common signs and symptoms[2]. I have also added a second list of additional common signs and symptoms. Please note that this list is in no way complete. Sufferers have different signs and symptoms, and no one should expect an individual to have all of these symptoms. You should contact a medical professional directly with any questions or concerns in regards to more information about signs and symptoms of an eating disorder.

  • significant change in weight (up or down) over a relatively short period of time;
    • changes in behavior such as disappearing after a meal or using the restroom after eating something;
    • boxes of laxatives, diet pills, or diuretics;
    • desire to eat in the bedroom alone rather than eating with family or spouse;
    • missing food;
    • sensitivity to cold; and
    • excessive hair loss, dental damage, or heart or gastrointestinal problems.

 

To the above list, I would add these signs and symptoms:

  • Sudden lack of interest in food. Sticking to a select few “safe” foods
  • Cutting food into very small pieces, chewing slowly.
  • Refusal to eat food after a certain time.
  • Insomnia
  • Dizziness
  • Over-interest in the scale. Compulsion to weigh oneself every day. Hiding the scale so other members of the household can’t find it.

 

What is it about the thought of eating disorders among the elderly that makes us uncomfortable enough to constantly dismiss the possibility that a loved one has an eating disorder? As someone who’s struggled with an eating disorder, I know how hard it is to confront the fact that a loved one is struggling. We don’t want to admit that someone we love, a child, sibling, friend, never mind a parent, truly has a problem.

Eating disorders are so powerful that those struggling with them often can’t vocalize that they need help. It is truly up to us, as family, friends or caregivers, to reach out to those that are caught in the grips of an eating disorder. They will resist. I assure you they will, they will deny they have a problem. I know because I did. It will take time, but eventually, with the proper help and support, the voice that is begging for help will grow stronger. The first and most important step however, is always to recognize and admit that a loved one is struggling.

The loved one who said to me “You can’t hide an eating disorder from someone who has one” probably saved my life. It takes courage to confront someone we love, it’s not easy and there’s often no reward. It’s important however, and an essential step on the road to recovery. If you suspect that an elder or anyone else is struggling with an eating disorder, please urge them to seek help and assist them on their road to recovery.

Help is out there! If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to MEDA (Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association) at http://medainc.org/ or at (617) 558-1881. MEDA is a wonderful Massachusetts-based organization run by a very experienced and hard-working staff. They can work with you or your loved one to find the best treatment options.

*All articles were provided by the friendly staff at MEDA. A big thank you goes out to MEDA for their assistance, without which, this blog would not have been possible.

For More Information:

NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association)

MEDA (Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association

Eating Disorder Hope

Psychology Today: Does Grandma Have an Eating Disorder?

[1] Bell, Leigh. “Chronic Illness and Eating Disorder Development in the Elderly Patient.” Eating Disorder Hope. January 26, 2016. Accessed May 01, 2017. https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/chronic-illness-and-eating-disorder-development-in-the-elderly-patient.

[2] Schaeffer, Juliann. “Elder Eating Disorders: Surprising New Challenge.” Today’s Geriatric Medicine. http://www.todaysgeriatricmedicine.com/news/exclusive_0409_03.shtml. Accessed May 1, 2017.

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