Dementia presents many challenges on many levels, for everyone involved. This blog post is to offer support to those trying to ensure their loved ones with dementia are eating.
To help a loved one with dementia to eat, one must first understand some underlying reasons why they are not. Dementia plays tricks, not only on their mind and memory, but also on their physical body. Your loved one may have problems swallowing, chewing, understanding what to do with the food, recognizing it, or digesting it. Many are unsure what to do with the food unless you show them or help them. Sometimes they lose interest. Sometimes they may have lost their ability to taste or smell. They may think they have already eaten. Perhaps they are taking medications that increase nausea or curb their appetite. Those same medications may also be causing them constipation and make them feel uncomfortable.
Give them foods from their past. For example, in the case of European decent, a piece of sausage or authentic baking may be familiar and enticing. “Ensure” shakes are not something that they grew up with.
Allow choices. Although limit to two choices, as to not complicate the issue.
Keep the food choices simple and recognizable.
Make foods enticing, esthetically pleasing and ones that are aromatic.
Have premade foods on hand for them to make eating an easier process.
Make foods easily accessible – leave cookies or snacks by their phone. Give them finger foods as much as possible to ensure they are able to eat with ease.
Give them cutlery that they can use. Cutlery can become difficult as the disease progresses, and there is such a thing as “Adaptive Eating Utensils.”
Ensure they have company while eating, this allows them to mimic.
Call to remind them – share a snack over the phone. A shared “Coffee Break”, or work break.
A red plate can increase appetite by 25%. The color helps stimulate and interest those with dementia.
Small plates can be less overwhelming.
Ensure to distinguish the plate from the food. Their eyes may also be tricking them.
Be patient. Getting anxious for them to eat only boosts their anxiety, resulting in the opposite.
Praise the food you are eating. Engaging their interest and camaraderie in eating can go a long way.
Use body language when eating, and save the conversation to ensure they don’t get sidetracked concentrating on what you are saying instead of what they are eating. Make eye contact when eating.
Create an upbeat atmosphere. Keeping things happy and light create a more enjoyable dining experience for everyone.
Hide the nutrition in the food if whole foods are not enticing to their taste buds. You may need to bulk up the calories by adding protein powder to soft foods.
Keep the table setting simple. The less distraction the better. Avoid plates with patterns on them.
Limit environmental distractions. A TV or lots of action in the background will not be a comfortable environment for them.
Test the temperature. They may not be able to tell if it’s too hot or too cold.
Go at their pace. You may need to slow things down to allow them adequate time to eat.
Include food choices that are high in water content, as dehydration can also be a problem.
Ensure they are comfortable and upright.
Soft foods can be helpful for some.
Check for pain. Are their dentures a good fit? Are their gums and teeth in good shape?
Encourage them to be active to work up an appetite.
Beware of depression.
Keep a journal to keep track of what works.
Understand that every loved one is different, the disease changes, and all of this may require some trial and error.
I also had some very great feedback from a friend with personal experience: “I would add that any meal companions should be people that have been dear to the individual; even if she/he can't recall them in the present moment. These individuals can help in the retelling of stories that then enable them to come into a present day discussion. We have noticed this with our loved one, and as well she is just happy to sit among others who are having a discussion of their own. She needs little entertaining and yet she feels included. “