By Dr. Marion Somers, Ph. D., Ask Dr. Marion

QUESTION: I recently heard about the term "failure to thrive," but I'm not sure how it applies to elder care. Please explain. Heidi in Montana, 67

ANSWER: The term "failure to thrive" was originally used in conjunction with pediatrics. It was applied to a child who was not giving his or her all in life due to real or imagined mental, physical, and/or emotional limitations. The concept is now being utilized to describe those in the geriatric population who are declining in health, losing independence, and lacking the will and spirit to live. Some elders still have a fighting chance to prevail, but they emotionally throw in the towel. This is "failure to thrive."

A few warning signs include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Loss of interest in one's surroundings
  • Physical inactivity
  • Poor nutrition or loss of interest in food
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Weight loss
  • Disconnection from family and friends

These very real problems can lead to a rapid decline in health and emotional well-being. Any of these factors, or a combination thereof, can trigger a progressive decline. The effects of disease become more acute, dementia may be exhibited, and an increased dependency on others can occur. Ultimately, you must watch out for a general malaise that might bring about depression and, ultimately, institutionalization.

Many of these physical and psychological difficulties may be improved and even reversed with proper intervention. The ultimate goal is to create a higher level of functioning in your elder. All sorts of therapeutic programs can be incorporated. This may include strength training through an occupational therapist, physical therapist, or certified yoga instructor. Remember, any physical program must be done under the direction of a physician who is directly involved with your elder.

I encourage any activity that stimulates the cognitive abilities. I'm talking about music therapy, art therapy, dance therapy, speech therapy, humor therapy, reminiscence programs, remotivation therapy, and anything with a spiritual focus. A multi-disciplinary approach to counteract an elder's decline usually works best, with the goal of helping an elder regain some of his or her physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength.

©2006 Elder Health Resources of America, Inc.