Healthy Aging in the Hispanic Population Caring for Abuelita: The Joys and Challenges

By Sylvia Meléndez Klinger

While most people are waking to their first cup of coffee, I am already making breakfast for my 83-year-old mom who moved in with us about three years ago.  Taking care of our parents is customary in the Hispanics culture, however, I never anticipated the amount of work and effort needed. Although my mom is quite independent and mobile, she still needs a lot of tender loving care.  As a result, it has become more apparent than ever that I want to help keep my mom as healthy as possible for as long as possible.  I know I’m not alone in caring for an older parent, as the older Hispanic population ages, more of us will be caretakers. Persons of Hispanic origin represent 8% of the older population. Between 2015-2030 the older Hispanic population is projected to increase by 123%1

The main reason why I decided for my mom to move in with us was to monitor her health and nutrition needs more closely. I noticed that she was losing weight and was no longer preparing balanced meals for herself.  She started getting distracted and would sometimes forget to eat some meals.  Fortunately, as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and loving daughter, I know that healthy aging is powered by nutrition and physical activity.

I want to highlight a few simple steps to help you or your Hispanic clients ensure that our abuelitos (grandparents) feel more energized, appreciated, and cared for because they are powered by nutrition and proper physical activity.  Here are several tips:

  • Assess their individual nutrient needs by visiting a bilingual RDN that can best understand their food, language and culture.
  • Plan healthy balanced meals of grains, lean protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables that are packed with important vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber  The most recent USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that people 50 and older choose a variety of healthy foods every day such as:
    • Grains (5 to 10 ounces): Corn tortillas, cereal, whole grain bread, rice, crackers, and pasta.
    • Lean protein (5 to 7 ounces): Lean meats trimmed of their fat, seafood, eggs, nuts, and beans.
    • Fruits (1-1/2 to 2-1/2 cups): Choose a variety of colors from orange, red, green, and purple. Oranges, passion fruit, pineapple, berries, and plums are some favorites in the Hispanic community.
    • Vegetables (2 to 3-1/2 cups) – Choose a variety of colors from green, orange, red, green, and purple. Yellow squash, peppers, onions, yucca, zucchini, eggplant, and sweet potatoes can be incorporated into classic Latin dishes.
    • Low fat dairy (3 servings): Low fat milk, low fat yogurt and low fat cheeses.

  • Enhance the flavor. Spices are important to Hispanics.  Include fresh herbs, garlic, onions, citrus fruits, and salsas to add zest and additional health benefits.
  • Incorporate foods that are soft in texture and cut in smaller pieces to help them chew and swallow more easily.
  • Do include favorite foods so their meals are more enjoyable.
  • Include a variety of grains in their meals. Grain foods are the foods we love that love us back.  They pack important nutrients such as fiber, a necessary nutrient for this life stage. Grains such as atole, rice cereal, oatmeal, tortillas, rice, quinoa, and a variety of breads are loved by the Hispanic elderly.
  • Talk to your doctor about nutritional supplements. Some seniors can benefit from the extra nutrients and calories. You may combine them with some of their favorite foods.
  • Consume fortified foods. Vitamins and minerals such as potassium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium and folic acid can be beneficial to protecting the heart, brain, bones and muscles. Look for foods such as breads and cereals that are fortified with these nutrients.
  • Delegate responsibilities according to capabilities. Don’t be afraid to push them a little harder. They will feel useful and it may give them an incentive to keep active.
  • Encourage a variety of activities – physical and emotional – to maintain energy levels. Have them get together with friends and family as often as possible.
  • Check medications to make sure they are not affecting their appetite or their desire to enjoy foods.
  • Provide as much love and attention as possible. Some of them suffer from depression and loneliness, especially if they have lost a spouse. Take time to listen to their life stories and show them tender and genuine love.

Taking care of our abuelitos (grandparents) is not always easy but I am confident that these simple steps will help you and your clients as much as they have helped me.

1 A Profile of Older Americans 2016. Administration on Aging. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

About the Author:

Award-winning author Sylvia Klinger, MS, RD, LDN, CPT, DBA is founder of Hispanic Food Communications, a nutrition communications and culinary consulting company. She is an Hispanic native who is a leading expert in cross-cultural nutrition and health issues. She uses her in-depth culinary and cultural expertise to introduce new strategies for wellness to an increasingly health-conscious population.