The best place to be as a child was in Grandma’s
kitchen, especially when she’s taking a fresh tray of
cookies out of the oven. Sneaking a bite of cookie
dough was a must for any youngster. Grandma may have
thought nothing of it then, but today, the risks of
eating raw eggs are well known. For seniors, these
stakes are even higher. A caregiver may be today’s
gateway to good health for their loved one, starting at
the basic knowledge of food safety.
My, how times have changed
It’s safe to say that the way the world “goes round” in
2010 is much more advanced than it was 10 years ago, at
the turn of the century. A decade can make a big
difference. In 2000, the Internet was just taking shape.
Today, it’s a necessity for almost all people’s daily
lives. So, if a decade can change things, what about
four, or five, even more? Some loved ones may be
reaching into their 80s or 90s, and in the 1950s or 60s,
when they were raising their families, doing most of
their own baking and cooking, life was a lot different.
The way food is produced, harvested, distributed and
prepared has evolved hand-in-hand with technology.
Scientific advances have shown that new and dangerous
bacteria and viruses can be found in foods; these
microorganisms were not even known years ago. Food
modification, mass production and mass distribution have
led people away from homegrown, fresh vegetables and
meat, leading almost all to rely on others, even those
long distances away, to provide for their daily
Science has identified illnesses that can come from
food, as well as ways people in the later years of life
are more susceptible to contracting foodborne health
issues. A caregiver has the responsibility to know and
respect the way a loved one used to live, while teaching
and helping them understand the way they must live to be
Special Risks for Seniors
Foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning, can be
serious, even fatal. According to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, every year 76 million
people fall ill, 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die
from food-related infections and illness in the United
States. Many of these victims are very young, very old,
or have weakened immune systems, unable to fight
Seniors have always been grouped with the “women and
children” crowd. This has been for good reason; they are
able to catch germs easier and also hold onto them
longer. Age causes changes in a body, slowing the food
digestion process. The stomach and intestinal tract
process foods slower, and a loved one’s liver and
kidneys are slower to rid their body of toxins. This
even alters a person’s sense of taste and smell.
Added to the natural effects of aging, all chronic
illnesses, and medications, and the unwelcome addition
of food poisoning can become very serious very fast.
Vigilance when handling, preparing and consuming foods
is important for a loved one to have. For caregivers,
awareness and education are crucial.
Are You Sick?
Teaching a loved one when to recognize they are
experiencing a negative reaction to food will help
identify the problem after the fact. First, caregivers
must understand that there is a wide range of time that
can pass between eating food with harmful bacteria and
the onset of symptoms.
Usually, foodborne illness takes one to three days to
develop. The common assumption is that it’s caused by a
person’s last meal. This may be true, but not
necessarily. There are many factors to consider,
including the type of bacteria which was in the affected
food. The range of time could be from 20 minutes to 6
weeks, at extreme circumstances. Even then, it’s
possibly a different illness. Some common symptoms of
food poisoning are feeling sick to the stomach, vomiting
or diarrhea. Others could be flu-like, including a fever
as well as head and body aches. Professionals suggest a
caregiver check with their loved one’s doctor if they
suspect food is to blame for an illness.
It used to be all foods were grown at home. Today’s
younger generations are trying to return to a semblance
of that lifestyle; but for most, climate and convenience
will never leave them completely independent for all
food. Many elderly loved ones will remember the days
gone by when they ate the same potato they dug the hole
in the ground for and planted months prior. There was no
need to worry about exactly where food came from.
Because of this, a loved one may have a greater trust
for food than the rest of society, or greater distrust.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers some
guidelines for proper food prep at home. First, “clean.”
Wash hands and surfaces often and well. Bacteria can be
found throughout a kitchen, including on utensils,
cutting boards, sponges and countertops. Use warm water
and soap for all washing of hands and cooking supplies.
When cutting boards develop worn and hard to clean
surfaces, they should be replaced. A loved one may
consider paper towels just extra waste, but they are
very good at preventing bacteria buildup.
Next, “separate.” Cross-contamination is how bacteria is
spread, especially when handling raw meat, poultry and
seafood. Separate these foods from other foods in
a shopping cart and also in the refrigerator. Use
different cutting boards for them as well. Wash utensils
and other dishes after coming in contact with raw meat,
poultry, seafood, eggs and unwashed fresh produce. A big
“no-no” is putting cooked food on the same plate the raw
was on previously. Bacterial residue on the plate could
contaminate the cooked food.
After separating, “cook” foods to proper temperatures.
The FDA explains that foods are cooked safely when
heated for a long enough time and at a high enough
temperature to kill the harmful bacteria. There are many
guidelines available for temperatures to watch for when
cooking a variety of foods. Visit
for more information.
Finally, the FDA advises seniors to “chill,” and not in
the way a teenager would mean! While stored at room
temperature, bacteria in food may double every 20
minutes. Caregivers should teach a loved one to
refrigerate foods quickly to keep bacteria at bay. Many
people believe it’s not good to put hot food in a
refrigerator, but the FDA says it keeps a person safe to
With some simple guidelines, a caregiver can show their
loved one how to eat safely at home and avoid problems
down the road.
The McDonald’s trend hit the United States in the late
1950s, and has grown into a full-blown way of life since
then. No longer is eating out a “treat” for a special
occasion, such as a birthday, anniversary or first date.
Sure, people may still dine at a fancier restaurant for
those times, but grabbing a sandwich or salad is a
regular habit. Today, nearly 50 percent of the
money spent on food goes toward meals that other people
It can be easy to simply trust that the food served at a
restaurant is suitable for consumption. Each person
should learn to be their own advocate and a senior loved
one is no exception. They may be experiencing an
age-related dulling of the senses, minimizing their
ability to recognize an unsafe situation. As at home,
don’t eat raw or undercooked food. Make sure hot meals
are hot and if the food is not cooked properly,
encourage a loved one to speak up and send it back. It’s
better to be safe than worry about “hurting someone’s
The trend in restaurants today is leaning toward large
meal portions. Many seniors end up packing the leftovers
to take home. The FDA advises that if the leftover food
will not be refrigerated within two hours of leaving the
restaurant, it’s safer to leave it there. Some senior
centers across the country won’t even allow food to be
taken home because they know of the dangers when food is
left sitting out too long.
Foods to Avoid
The FDA offers a list of foods seniors are advised to
- Raw fin fish and shellfish, including oysters, clams,
mussels, and scallops;
- Hot dogs and luncheon meats, unless they are reheated
until steaming hot;
- Raw or unpasteurized milk or soft cheeses (such as Feta,
Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese)
unless they are labeled as made with pasteurized milk;
- Refrigerated pates or meat spreads; (Canned or
shelf-stable pates and meat spreads may be eaten.)
- Refrigerated smoked seafood unless it is contained in a
cooked dish, such as a casserole; (Canned or
shelf-stable smoked seafood may be eaten.)
- Raw or lightly cooked egg or egg products containing raw
eggs such as salad dressings, cookie or cake batter,
sauces, and beverages such as eggnog; (Foods made from
commercially pasteurized eggs are safe to eat.)
- Raw meat or poultry;
- Raw sprouts (alfalfa, clover, and radish); and
- Unpasteurized or untreated fruit or vegetable juice.
Be a Better Shopper
Reading labels is becoming more and more essential for
all age groups. Many people have adverse affects from
the ingredient MSG, especially those in the senior
community. The other labels to look for are the open
dates on raw foods such as meats, eggs and dairy
products. Most important are the “sell by,” “best if
used by,” and “use by” dates. Caregivers can teach their
loved one how to read these labels and also check
refrigerators to ensure food has not gone bad and poses
a problem for bacteria growth.
Raw meat, poultry and seafood should also be placed in a
separate plastic bag, so the juices do not leak onto
other groceries. Buy only pasteurized milk, cheese and
other dairy products. Teach a loved one to buy only eggs
from the refrigerated section of the store, and check
canned goods for dents, cracks or bulging lids.
With a few small tricks and tips, a caregiver can
encourage a loved one to eat good, nutritious meals
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