by Amy Natt, MS, CMC, CSA
Q: I was visiting my aunt last week, and I noticed that several of the things in her refrigerator looked to be out of date. I offered to clean it out for her, but she insisted she would do it later. Should I be worried about her eating something that will make her sick?
A: We are all guilty of leaving things in the cupboard or refrigerator a little longer than we should at times. Even canned and bottled items can expire or spoil. As a person ages, they may also experience diminished ability to taste and smell, making it even harder to detect when something needs to be tossed out.
Those dates are also written in the smallest font possible, making them difficult to read. This can lead to people eating foods or taking medications that may have expired months or years ago.
While some foods are thought to be safe beyond the suggested “use by” or “expiration” date listed, others are a bit riskier. Items such as eggs, deli meats, bagged greens, seafood, chicken, raw beef, soft cheeses and berries that have turned soft can contain harmful bacteria when consumed beyond the expiration date. Things that have already been reheated or sat out for long periods at room temperature, or things turning colors and growing, should all be thrown away.
This may seem like common sense, but many older adults were raised during times of economic depression and taught not to throw anything away. Others may have lost an interest in food or have diminished sensory intake, which prevents them from noticing things that have spoiled. Mobility issues or problems with short-term memory may also prevent a person from routinely clearing out older items.
Medication is another item often kept past the expiration date. The individual holds onto it in case it is needed in the future. Some medications are expensive and throwing them away just seems wasteful. Checking dates on prescription and over the counter medicine is important and they should be discarded once expired. Most counties offer medication drops where you can dispose of them. The local health department or agency on aging should be able to provide you with that information.
Doing a full sweep of the refrigerator and cabinets at least every six months is a good idea. If your aunt has someone she trusts already cleaning for her, see if they would build this into their routine. Educate her to the risks of consuming these items, and see if she will let you do a good spring cleaning with her to discard older items. Let her know you do the same thing at your own house. Pointing out how old some of the items are might help her realize how long it has been and help her acknowledge the need.
When you are visiting her and open the refrigerator to get yourself a glass of tea, remove items that are clearly past their prime, and then bag and remove them from the house. Sometimes, it is better to ask forgiveness after the fact.
Make sure your aunt has the resources (transportation, mobility and finances) to get groceries and up-to-date medications. Sometimes, older adults hold onto these items because the budget is tight, and they are worried they cannot afford to replace them. There may be county resources to help with these expenses.
If you think that there are indications that she is not eating or taking medications, that may be a reason to talk with her physician to see what else might be going on. There could be physical or mental health issues that have not been adequately addressed.
You can tell a lot by routinely monitoring a person’s refrigerator, but you will have to get her on board with allowing you to do that. Try to come up with ways to “check in” without being overly invasive. If red flags persist, ask for help and get her the added assistance she may need to remain safely in her home.
Natt, an Aging Life Care ProfessionalTM, certified senior advisor and CEO of Aging Outreach Services, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org