Gluten-Free Seniors – What Are We Going To Do?

As our population ages, I’m terrified. I’m not just scared of growing old. I mean, that itself is terrifying. Right now we have our grandma into a home for those with dementia. It’s really sad. She can’t remember who she is, or to wash her hands. What if I forget that I have to be gluten-free? What if I forget that I have celiac?

But even if I’m of sound mind and body until I’m old and saggy (hoping to keep my wits about me), who will care for me? Who can care for me with safe gluten-free food? Who can care for an aging autoimmune patient outside of a hospital?

It’s all so scary. Also, I’m going to need a LOT of botox. 

First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Something that my parents argue with me. What’s the point? You’ve lived your life up to this point, why go gluten-free now? Is it even worth it going gluten-free past 60? Past 70?

Yes, according to Celiac Disease Foundation. “Some question whether it is meaningful to detect celiac disease in the elderly population, especially when the symptoms are mild, arguing that the adoption of a strict, gluten-free diet is a difficult lifestyle change. The researchers from this study, however, maintain that correctly diagnosing these patients is worthwhile, as the available evidence suggests a significant improvement in quality of life on a strict, gluten-free diet. Notably, this improvement in quality of life has been demonstrated even in seemingly asymptomatic elderly patients.”

I’m so happy that Delicious Living wrote about this topic in their article “Going Gluten Free as a Senior”

As awareness of gluten issues grow, more and more people – including seniors – are being diagnosed with celiac disease and gluten allergies. While learning to live a gluten-free lifestyle can be daunting to anyone, it provides unique challenges to seniors over age 65.

How Can They Care For Gluten-Free Seniors?

One of the biggest problems gluten-free seniors face is finding an assisted living or long-term care community that can accommodate their specific dietary needs.

Communities that provide long-term care must provide a diet prescribed by a doctor, but assisted living and retirement facilities do not, Ronni Alicea, a dietician specializing in gluten-free diets in healthcare facilities, said to the Gluten-Free & More website. If you stray outside locations like this, it’s a toss-up. My grandmother’s home doesn’t have a specific diet lined up, although meals are home cooked by the residential facility’s owners. What happens if they were to take in a senior with food allergies or celiac disease? Would this person, who is just running a senior home, have to become an expert then in specialty diets too? What if we couldn’t afford a assisted living home that had chefs that understood what gluten meant? See what I mean about terrifying? 

So what are you looking for when you visit retirement communities or senior living options? Here are some key questions from Gluten Free & More Magazine.

Are They Willing To Make Gluten-Free Food?

Discuss how proper preparation of the food (e.g., using a dedicated gluten-free toaster) is as important as the food itself, says Alicea. They may tell you they don’t want that responsibility. Others will say they handle special diets and food allergies all the time, no problem.

Does the Kitchen Get Gluten-Free?

Obviously, this is a great sign if they’re already preparing gluten-free meals for others, says Alicea. However, see if you can talk to those residents about their experience. Make sure they’re happy.Many of the same principals of kitchen safety for food allergy apply to celiac disease. In fact, you want staff to treat celiac disease as seriously as they would an anaphylactic food allergy, says Alicea. Find out how they minimize cross contamination when cooking for residents with food allergies. Take a tour of the kitchen and see how clean it is. With procedures and training systems already in place for food allergy, the gluten-free diet should be easier to implement.

Are They Willing To Purchase Gluten-Free Staples?

Find out in advance how this will be handled. Should you stock these staples for your gluten-free senior, or do they have a pantry available? Do they know how to purchase specialty diet products? You don’t want to be surprised by added costs or the responsibility of having to supply gluten-free food if you think it should be covered under the traditional meal plan.

Have a Conversation

“You have to talk to the people in charge of the food – the dining coordinator or dietitian or the staff on consult,” says Anderson, who recommends that you “don’t just ask, ‘can you do gluten-free.’” Instead, ask them to walk you through a week’s worth of menus. Also ask to speak to other gluten-free residents who can tell you straight out if the food is good, if the community really sticks to a gluten-free menu and if there is variety and a lot of options so you won’t get bored.

Are There Safe Spaces Out There?

Yes, but they are far too few and far between. With 1:100 people with celiac disease, I’ve only been able to find a few that are actually trained to be gluten-free. That’s it?  Grandview Terrace in Sun City West, Arizona, and GenCare Lifestyle communities in Arizona and Washington are all gluten-free certified. But that’s not enough. Do you know of any safe places for gluten-free seniors? 

Thank you to New Hope Network’s Delicious Living and Gluten Free & More Magazine for this conversation and content about gluten-free seniors and gluten-free senior living! I am a New Hope Network blogger and currently employed with Gluten Free & More magazine.

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Comments: 9

  1. Trude June 22, 2018 at 11:09 pm Reply

    This is my fear too. I’m 68 now and diagnosed for celiac disease whem I was 56. It made such a difference for me. Never being tired and ill all the time anymore. It will always be important to have the right diagnosis. No matter what age you are.
    I fear growing old and having to trust others with my glutenfree diet.
    I was in hospital twice after I knew I had celiac disease and both times it all went wrong with my meals. My husband and daughter brought my food to the hospital. Welcome to the 21st century. And no I do not live in an undetdeveloped country. I live in the Netherlands.

  2. Claire June 24, 2018 at 7:13 pm Reply

    Thanks for bringing this up. I am gluten-free and dairy-free and this is one of my fears. My aunt is in a memory care center and while I hope I never end up in one like her, it scares me just as much to live somewhere where they cannot accommodate my food allergies.

  3. Nancy Kirk July 11, 2018 at 7:26 am Reply

    When visiting assisted living facilities for my mother, I raised the question of GF dining as that is one of my needs. I was told there was no way they could handle that. So if I have to go into a residential facility, am I going to be sick the rest of my life?

  4. Marti September 5, 2018 at 10:43 am Reply

    Having Celiac Disease or being gluten-intolerant entails a host of problems. As far as I know, there is only one retirement community that is gluten-free certified. This is Grandview Terrace in Phoenix, Arizona. But I’ve never visited so I cannot verify how accurate that is. I currently live in a retirement community in the east coast because my children live out here. When I visited and before I moved into my current community, they assured me that there would be gluten-free meals. After I moved in, I found out that they didn’t always have gluten-free meals, nor did they care. So promises and a smile don’t always mean anything. My mother had Alzheimer’s disease and I worry that if I get it, no one will look after my diet and I will suffer with pain and no one will care. We’re on our own for now until some smart-thinking entrepreneurs start opening up some gluten-free certified retirement communities in various locations. More and more people are being diagnosed with these problems, including children. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Good luck to you all!

  5. sheila December 4, 2018 at 2:06 pm Reply

    Hey I as a GF for 42 years which has made my M S recede to livable levels. I am 76 and can not live in any places here in Chicago. They are clueless. As dietician trained I have offered to help them be GF but they think it is my imagination. Maybe we GFrs can live in a large apt together with a caregiver who will follow the GF rules for us. It is indeed terrifying and no one I know thinks it is is real or important. If I hear it is a fad one more time I will spit. Gluten pain is very real but invisible. My sensitivity to Gluten is such that it just has to touch my tongue and I know! Luckily that gives me the option to spit it out immediately. tres gauche in a restaurant but necessary. GF can be very lonely when even your family or doctor are incredulous.

    • Sheia Frank December 7, 2021 at 8:26 am Reply

      Hey Sheila, Sheila with M S here too. Just read your message. We are about the same age(born in 1942) live in Chicago. Have visited a few local retirement communities without much hope or interest.. If your doctor prescribes a G F diet they are required by ADA to provide if meals are included in the price. I have even considered living with a GF person and hiring/sharing a caregiver/cook to solve this issue. My other issue is heat sensitivity and those place are kept at 85*F. I have been G F since about 1977. YES it does work. Just letting you know we are not alone. ‘ But you look so good’ works until Gluten touches my tongue. Keep sharing info until they ‘get it’.

  6. Janet H August 28, 2019 at 11:15 am Reply

    I fear it will need intervention at a governmental level……one could argue that Celiacs are a minority experiencing bias/discrimination.

  7. Vicki February 19, 2021 at 5:14 pm Reply

    When entering an assisted living for a short term stay, we were told they could accommodate a gf diet. They did that by eliminating everything on the menu that contained gluten, leaving very limited choices. That is tolerable for a short term (2-week) stay, but not for long term!

  8. Mary Miller September 5, 2021 at 4:31 pm Reply

    This is a huge factor for me as well finding a place where I can go AND still live with my husband being disabled (both of us) and I with serious wheat and dairy allergies (still needing the doctor to give the “C” word since I have anemia as well). It’s a biggy to find a place that will honor my severe allergies, deal with the fact I am MARRIED and allow us to remain so.

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