Recognizing Failure to Thrive in the Elderly

A growing concern is a senior's failure to thrive.

Watching your parent or a patient waste away for no apparent reason can be heart-wrenching. Failure to thrive in the elderly is a condition where seniors begin to decline without a specific reason. This condition was once thought to only exist in small children and babies. Today, it is being used to describe older individuals that appear to be experiencing failing health due to a myriad of conditions.

What is Failure to Thrive in the Elderly?

Failure to thrive is not a condition that is irreversible, but if allowed to continue, it may result in death. Identifying it may help reverse the ill effects if noticed in time.


The symptoms of this condition include the following:

  • Weight loss
  • Poor nutrition or eating habits
  • Lack of appetite
  • Inertia or lack of exercise or activities


There are four syndromes that appear to be synonymous with failure to thrive in the elderly. According to the American Family Physician, these are:

  • Impaired physical function
  • Malnutrition
  • Depression
  • Cognitive impairment

What Caregivers Can Do

Nothing is more troubling than watching a loved one lose vitality and their will to live. Existing medical conditions may contribute to the depression and lack of interest in activities that they may have previously enjoyed. As a caregiver, close monitoring of changes in behavior and diet is very important to avoid failure to thrive in the elderly.

Visit the Family Physician

If you notice unusual behavior in a loved one, such as depression, unwillingness to eat or weight loss for no reason, you should take them to their physician as quickly as possible. Going without food and water for more than a day can result in serious health problems or even death.

Follow Medical Advice Closely

Any medications that are prescribed should be given by following instructions carefully. This is especially true if anti-depressants are part of a daily regimen. Failure to give anti-depressants on time can send a patient spiraling into deeper depression.

Feeding a person who is depressed and unwilling to eat can be difficult, but not impossible.

  • Involve them in the cooking process as a positive association with food and socialization.
  • Find out what their favorite dishes are and attempt to make them.
  • Try out new recipes, or variations of their favorites using fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables.

Don't despair if at first they refuse; continue trying and they may eventually come around.

Introduce Activities and Visitors

If a loved one has been isolated from friends, it may be a reason they have lost interest in activities they once enjoyed. Invite people over whom they enjoy and haven't seen in a while. Help them get ready for the visit by cleaning their home and assisting them to look their best. Sometimes a visit can truly be the shot in the arm a person needs to cheer them up out of their doldrums. If the individual has mobility, get them involved in activities at a local senior center. A game of cards once a week, watching a funny movie with others, even lunch out may help.

Pet Therapy

Having pets or allowing them to visit can help people that are in depression. Caring for something else can help people stop thinking about their own problems. Many nursing homes realize this and use the services of pet therapists, which bring dogs, cats and kittens in for visits. It is hard to resist the soft and cuddly nature of these creatures and some people who are not responsive to humans will appreciate the unconditional affection of an animal. The best animals for this activity are the very calm ones.

Plan for Adverse Outcomes

Despite the best intentions of physicians and family members, the decline of a loved one may be irreversible. Family caregivers need to make sure certain provisions are in place in the event of a decline. Caregivers should see to legal matters by arranging for power of attorney and even a living will to ensure the patient's wishes will be met.

A Faultless Condition

The failure to thrive in an elderly person is no one's fault. It is important to remember this if you are the caregiver. Despite everything being done to assist the elderly with this condition, some people may not be able to overcome it. Nevertheless, consult with medical and legal professionals the moment you have a concern.

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Recognizing Failure to Thrive in the Elderly