“The nurse points to the IV and says, ‘I can’t give you anything to drink, you know, the normal way.’ The man begs again, ‘Please, I’d feel so much better if only I could drink a glass tea.’ So, the nurse gets an idea. She makes the man a cup of tea and pours it into the IV. All of a sudden, the man starts crying out as if in pain. ‘Oh, no! Is it too hot?’ the nurse asks. ‘No,’ the man says, ‘too sweet!’ ”
My grandfather had been hospitalized after three months of complete exhaustion for which there was no obvious cause. Just rising from the couch in his small Rockville apartment had become a draining endeavor. Walking 10 feet to the microwave left him too tired to zap something once he got there. His appetite had vanished along with his energy. First he lost five pounds. Then 10, then 20, until he wasted to a diminutive 120. He thought he was dying.
After a few days, though, his doctors — along with my WebMD-savvy parents — figured out that he probably had Addison’s disease, a disorder that occurs when a person’s adrenal glands fail to produce enough of the steroid hormone cortisol.
The cure came in the form of a few small hydrocortisone pills. As my grandfather tells it, “I took them on a Sunday, and by Monday I was better. It was like a movie.” As his discharge approached, a doctor told him that at his age, it was particularly important to get back up to fighting weight. My grandfather protested, saying he had no appetite. “How can I eat?” he asked.
“Figure out what you like, and eat it,” the doctor replied.
Decreased appetite is a common problem among the elderly. It can be traced to anything from cancer to tooth decay, or in my grandfather’s case, a hormonal imbalance. The Mayo Clinic offers several remedies, among them spicing up bland food, getting more exercise and planning snack breaks between meals.
But I found a more compelling route in David Sutton’s 2001 book “Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory.” The people he studied for 18 years on the Greek island of Kalymnos urged him to “eat in order to remember,” because the rituals of eating formed a significant part of their cultural identity. Maybe my grandfather could learn something from the Kalymnians, I thought. Maybe I could cultivate his appetite by reminding him of meals he had enjoyed in the past.
An avid eater
My grandfather has always been an avid eater, though admittedly no gourmand: He’s a man who scarfs, not savors. But his stories nearly always involve some neighborhood Italian joint, some late night passed in a Greek diner, some restaurant in the backdrop. Tangential to the story, but important.