When Dennis Carper visited his mother, Delores, on his way back home to Redmond from Spokane, she always wanted to feed him. So he’d look in the refrigerator. Always, she had meatloaf.
“How long has this been here?” Carper would ask. “Oh, not very long,” his 80-something mother would always answer.
One day, Carper made a meatloaf and mayonnaise sandwich from his mother’s fridge. By Moses Lake, he was writhing with stomach pain. He pulled over at the rest stop just in time.
If you are a grown child of parents now in their 80s and 90s, who still live independently, you’ve likely experienced this dilemma: Your aging parents don’t throw food out. They try to feed it to you. You say no. Feelings get hurt.
You say yes and hours later, your intestinal track shouts “No.”
Older parents’ expired refrigerator food is a source of amusement for grown children but a source of worry, too, as it should be. Food-borne illnesses can kill older folks.
Solving this dilemma, however, is not a simple matter of cleaning out of your parents’ refrigerator every week. It’s much more complicated.
Mention that you’re working on a story about old food in older parents’ refrigerators, and the grown children of the Greatest Generation dispense stories faster than a fridge’s ice machine.
• There was the elderly family friend who kept leftovers down to the last bite, placing them in smaller and smaller plastic containers. Friends knew never to accept leftovers from the smallest containers.
• Then there was that frozen Minute Maid limeade discovered in a parent’s freezer in 2010 with no expiration date but this hint: “Official sponsor of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team.”
• And several reported tales of frozen potato chips and Doritos thawed for family picnics.
In the 1996 movie “Mother,” the character played by Debbie Reynolds insists to her grown son that “salad can be frozen” and the freezer burn on her sherbet is “protective ice.”
“This tastes like an orange foot,” says her son, played by Albert Brooks, as he takes a bite of the sherbet. “You’re running a food museum here.”
Some reasons why
Older people’s refrigerators turn into food museums for several reasons, according to aging experts and those who work in food safety.
• They’re frugal
They survived the Depression and World War II. Both eras were marked by food scarcity and rationing.
“They came out of an era when you didn’t throw anything away. They see that as a waste,” said Pam Sloan, executive director of Elder Services of Spokane.
• They’re less aware of spoilage
“Most of us do the smell and taste test. We look at the ham and see that it’s discolored and throw it out,” said Maddy Houghton, an instructor in the dietetics program at Washington State University Spokane. “But if your eyesight or sense of smell is starting to disappear, you might not notice.”
Older people can also have trouble reading expiration dates or seeing the small containers pushed to the back of the refrigerator.
• They don’t care
We take care of things we’re passionate about. During a person’s “foodie” years, they treasure fresh ingredients and discard vegetables and fruits past their prime.
The average person has between 5,000 and 10,000 taste buds, according to BrainFacts.org. As people age, they permanently lose taste buds, sometimes up to half of them. So food loses its fun.
Mollie Dalpae, director of Meals on Wheels Spokane, says clients are asked in surveys how many meals they eat a day. Most say two, but the second meal is often described as “toast and coffee.”
• They’re forgetting
Memory problems that increase with age might translate to placing leftovers in the fridge, and then not remembering if the take-out chicken dinner was from a week ago, or a month ago.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people get sick each year from what’s commonly called food poisoning. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
Out of 31 possible food-borne pathogens, the deadliest include salmonella, norovirus and listeria. And they take the greatest toll on older people, young children and pregnant women, due to weaker immune systems.
Last September, listeria-contaminated cantaloupes killed more than a dozen people throughout the United States. Most of the victims were older than 60.
“Listeria can even grow under refrigeration,” warned Kristina Keating, food program coordinator for Panhandle Health District.
If you’ve only experienced a mild case of food poisoning – a brief diarrhea attack, for instance – it’s hard to imagine how it could kill you. But people who have experienced acute poisoning understand.
Four years ago, when Keating was pregnant, she caught a norovirus, from an unknown source.
“I was hospitalized for three days,” she said. “They came close to having to do an emergency C-section.”
Two people in a household might eat the exact same food and “the young person might be fine and an older person get sick from it. And then, if they have other illnesses, like diabetes or kidney disease or if they’re getting cancer treatment, it’s a much bigger worry,” said WSU’s Houghton.
In the final years of life, as many things get stripped away, older people cling tighter to things they can control. The contents of their refrigerator, for instance.
Older people often complain about family role reversal. The child becomes the parent. Grown children scold their parents about expired food in the refrigerator, for instance.
Houghton said of aging parents: “They don’t want to think we are keeping an eye on them with the idea maybe they need to go to a nursing home. Saving face is very important for that age.”
Sloan, of Elder Services, believes grown children should approach the refrigerator issue with respect and compassion.
“I always approach everything with the idea that I am not going to help them, but they will help me,” she said.
So Sloan suggested asking a parent if he or she will help label things in the refrigerator, because it’s something you are trying in your own home.
Grown children can suggest, but usually not force, parents to consider programs such as Meals on Wheels, which guarantees fresh and safe food.
Grown children can offer to clean out the refrigerator on a weekly or monthly basis; washing the inside of refrigerators can stem the spread of listeria within the refrigerator, Keating pointed out.
But choose your battles. The ketchup that expired last week isn’t going to kill your mom or dad. But the month-old meatloaf might.
Dennis Carper spared his mother’s feelings by discreetly throwing out bad food.
She would sit in her living room while he rooted around in the fridge.
She’d say: “I have some old potato salad.” He’d say, “OK, I’ll eat it up.” Then he’d stow it in the bottom of her garbage pail and pile other garbage on top so she wouldn’t find it later.
When her family-size refrigerator died, Carper and his brother, Tom, took their mother refrigerator shopping, and they talked her into a smaller model. They figured less space, less food to spoil.
“Until the day she died, she bitched about that small refrigerator,” Carper remembered. “She said, ‘There’s no room.’ ”