Of the many things we must abandon as we get older, one of the very last to go is appetite.
Even people who are terminally ill somehow manage to get hungry. And yet--despite adverse circumstances that are unrelated to their health--they still manage to eat.
What circumstances could be more adverse than a fatal illness, you ask?
While refusal to eat could be interpreted as a sign that a person is close to death, it might be more easily seen a sign that the food is so damn bad that even a dying man can't eat it.
That's pretty bad.
And yet, it seems to be the norm for most institutions. The excuse is often made that the ill and the elderly don't want food with too much flavor. That's just a cover-up for lazy thinking, and quite possibly, a lazy cook.
The lazy thinking comes from the notion that old people want bland food. No one ever asks the them if this is actually the case. It's taken as a given; using the lowest common denominator to define the entire class of 'diners' in a hospital or nursing home.
Now this doesn't--or shouldn't--come as a surprise. We already follow this formula in schools, to the detriment of the students' health and the school's budget. Kids don't eat the food. It goes in the wastebasket. The school lunch program ends up looking more like a make-work program for #10 can cooks than a health or income benefit for the students they are supposed to feed.
The question of appetite hasn't changed, however, from grade school to the nursing home.
Well, slightly. It is true, of course, that older people simply don't have the appetite that they once had. It is true that because they have so much less physical activity, the need to eat is greatly reduced. After all, recess no longer involves a long chase around the playground. Now it's a trip down the hall to physical therapy.
But just because the 'kids' are no longer 'starving' doesn't mean they aren't hungry.
And yet, when nursing home residents get to the table, they get wet warm salad, canned peaches with watered-down cottage cheese, stewed prunes, salisbury steak, rubbery skinless boneless chicken, fish sticks and chicken fingers. No salt, no pepper, paprika, no peppers of any kind. No salsa. No sabor.
We can do better. We don't have to be so damned lazy.
Now, I'm not saying that we need gourmet cuisine in nursing homes and hospitals. I certainly have no illusions about the poor eating habits and habitual preferences of most Americans. I do think, however, that we are underestimating most old and infirm people's desire for flavorful food. I also think we are underestimating their willingness to try new and interesting things, even at an advanced age.
Since 'quality of life' is such an admittedly important aspect of the whole aging and dying process, I think that improving the 'quality of food' might just be worth the effort. It might not save lives, but it would make what's left of them more enjoyable.