Feeding the elderly who have to cope with arthritic hands and various other health problems which affect the kind of food that goes on to their plate is not easy. So many factors come into play when cooking for the elderly.

A Fresh Ideas Networking and Learning event addressing this problem took place at St Anne’s College recently. It was open to people running food projects that aim to make healthy/local food more easily available and affordable to local communities, particularly in areas of disadvantage. The aim was to link projects and give people involved in food work at ground level a chance to meet each other, exchange ideas and learn a little more about the needs of the community they serve.

Because I have been struggling to come up with tasty meals that will satisfy my 93-year-old mother, and often failing abysmally, I attended the Healthy Eating and Cooking for Older People workshop, run by Holly Baker and Isabella Huges for the Age Concern’s Fit as a Fiddle programme. Some of the healthy eating initiatives that this has already put in place include encouraging older men to improve their cooking skills, weight and health management, and programmes aimed at various cultural diets.

The workshop was more of a general discussion than a ‘how to cook for the elderly’ lecture, which proved far more useful as it enabled all those cooking for old people to have their say. It was generally admitted that it is not always easy to come up with food that will satisfy all their senses, but with a little care and forethought, they can eat well and with joy.

Because an elderly person’s senses are diminishing, extra care has to be taken, particularly when seasoning the food, as the sense of taste is often affected by age — sweet and salt being the first tastes to fade. I know my own mother desires strongly flavoured food now – crispy bacon, dark bitter chocolate and curry being among her favourites. Serve an older person bland food and they will reach for the salt cellar, which is not what we want them to do at this stage in their lives, when high salt intake can be a problem, risking high blood pressure. Herbs, acids such as lemon and mustards can be used to enhance a meal and give the extra flavour they crave.

A sauce or gravy helps, too, as older people don’t produce as much saliva as they once did, making casseroles and braised dishes and stewed fruits more desirable than dry dishes or fresh whole fruit.

As the immune systems of older people tend to get weaker with every passing year they are more susceptible to being affected by bacteria and germs that can poison food. It is vital, therefore, that cold meats, especially chicken and fish, should be kept refrigerated until they are ready to eat. It is also important to ensure any left-overs are not allowed to hang around at room temperature and finished later in the day, as bacteria multiply at an alarming rate in a warm room.

It is also worth checking their medicines in case any react adversely when mixed with foods such as grapefruit or grapefruit juice.

Some older people, particularly those suffering from arthritic hands, find cutting food quite difficult. Rather than cutting it up for them once it is served, those assembled at the meeting agreed that there are lots of foods that are easy to eat and therefore don’t need cutting up once cooked. And if the person you are cooking for does fancy roast meat, then pay a little extra for a succulent joint now and again and carve the meat so thinly that cutting it when it is on the plate is not such a struggle.

It is easy to assume that older people no longer need nutritional meals. This is incorrect. They need their nutrients just as much as youngsters do. Calcium is particularly important as this helps prevent bone loss and osteoporosis in older people, especially women.

They also need food that contains fibre to help prevent constipation, though small seeds and nuts are best avoided if there is a possibility that they suffer from diverticulitis, a common digestive disease that’s sometimes triggered by small seeds.

I realise that cooking for an elderly person sounds very complicated but it need not be so. The meeting concluded that there are really positive things we can do when cooking for the elderly person, while honouring all these points.

Although an elderly person will require smaller portions than they once ate, they still need well-balanced attractive meals that contain fresh fruits and vegetables and are cooked with care and love. They also need to retain their dignity by eating at the table when possible.

But most of all they need conversation while eating — this is probably the most important ingredient of all.