Providing enjoyable and nutritious meals is a big part of caregiving, and it can be challenging when a loved one has dementia. He or she may have cognitive and physical difficulty with the eating process. Consider these ten caregiving tips.
1. Try to avoid meal time distractions like a loud TV or a dining table cluttered with things that aren’t needed for eating. Discourage unnecessary interruptions whenever possible.
2. Strike a balance between cultural food traditions and nutrition when planning the menu. The smell and site of familiar and preferred foods can stimulate the appetite and interest in eating. Spices and herbs can be used to enhance flavor rather than salt and sugar.
3. Consult your loved one’s doctor and be aware of foods, beverages, and prescribed medications that may have side effects associated with digestion or continence issues, or that may have harmful interactions.
4. Pay attention to how food is served at the table. A plate with a busy pattern piled with a jumbled mix of foods may be overwhelming while scoop of mashed potatoes on a white plate on top of a white tablecloth may go unnoticed. Try serving one or two food items at a time, using a single solid colored plate and spacing different foods apart or using a plate with dividers. If a spoon is easier to use than a fork, go with the spoon. If visual-spatial or motor skills are impaired, getting food into the mouth may be difficult; be prepared to assist (see resources below).
5. People with dementia may experience difficulty with chewing and swallowing, especially with dense or crunchy foods. Consider serving pre-cut foods and finger foods that are easy to chew and swallow. Cutting food in the kitchen, before serving it at the table, may also save your loved one from embarrassment at not being able to manage this task.
6. If a person seems uncomfortable with chewing, it may also mean a loose tooth or a cavity, and time for a dental checkup. If they have dentures, be sure they’re being worn at meal time. Be aware that if chewing or swallowing is difficult, some food may remain in the mouth at the end of a meal, and your help may be needed to safely remove it.
7. With dementia, one’s speed of thought is slower, so it stands to reason that the pace of eating will be slower too. Be patient, stay focused on the food and don’t rush the meal. Avoid forcing someone to eat. Be willing to pause, talk for a bit, and try again. Remember that people with dementia may be more influenced by your facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice than the words you say.
8. A person with dementia may have problems with visual-spatial perception, or they may have tremor in their handles. Drinking beverages can be difficult if glasses or cups are too big, wide, or heavy to handle. Always check to make sure beverages are not too hot or too cold before serving them.
9. People with dementia may forget to drink enough water. Dehydration can contribute to a variety of health problems. Have an easy-to-use cup or glass on hand throughout the day, and encourage them to drink. Some people like sippy cups with handles, others like to drink through straws.
10. Routine and schedule is important, but forcing someone to eat is unlikely to have a positive result. For many people, meal time is a social activity. Others may prefer to eat alone. Preferences may change from one meal or one day to the next. Try to be flexible and accommodating. If your loved one is in a care facility, you can advocate for them with facility staff. Knowing they enjoy meal time and are getting good nutrition makes life better for everyone.
The MIND Diet (choosing foods for brain health)
Care.com (tips to make sure a senior is eating enough)
Strategies for Feeding Patients with Dementia (a nurse’s guide)
Dementia.org (caregiver strategies at feeding time)
Duke University School of Nursing (assistance with feeding)
Find out what’s happening at The Sue’s Story Project.