Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease can present many challenges for a family caregiver. Making mealtime go smoothly might be one of them. It’s important to identify what your family member’s struggles are and develop strategies to work around them.
Why Do Loved Ones With Dementia Sometimes Refuse to Eat?
A few mealtime challenges that are common for people with Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia include:
Your loved one may no longer recognize their body’s hunger triggers, or they may be taking a medication that decreases their appetite. A loss of smell or taste can further exacerbate these problems. All of this may make an older adult with dementia less interested in food at mealtime.
Oral health problems
It isn’t uncommon for someone with Alzheimer’s to experience weight loss. If it’s a significant amount, it may lead to a problem with their dentures fitting properly. Caregivers may also struggle to convince a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease to cooperate with dental care. Lack of good oral hygiene may result in an underlying oral health problem that can make it painful for them to chew.
Difficulty with coordination
For most people with Alzheimer’s disease, hand-to-eye coordination eventually becomes an issue that may make mealtime physically and emotionally difficult. The frustration of trying to use silverware and being unsuccessful can lead to a loss of dignity and lower self-esteem.
Anxiety and agitation
One of the more common struggles for both the person living with Alzheimer’s as well as their family members is managing agitation. It can make sitting still long enough to eat difficult or even impossible to do.
The Family Caregiver Alliance is a helpful resource with tips and facts about mealtime for people with dementia.
Feeding Strategies and Nutrition for Dementia
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to adapt your family member’s environment and modify mealtime activities, allowing a loved one who has dementia to feel successful. Here are a few to consider:
1. Eliminate distractions:
Turn off the television, cellphone, and radio. Try to create a corner where you can sit down quietly for each meal with your loved one. If your older family member responds well to music, turn on the radio. By providing a calm, consistent environment for meals, you can help decrease agitation and encourage eating.
2. Pay attention to visuals:
Use a brightly colored placemat with a different colored plate to create contrast. This approach will allow them to distinguish the plate from the table, as well as identify the food on the plate. Avoid linens and dishes with busy patterns. Studies have found when people with Alzheimer’s are served meals on red plates, they eat 25 percent more than those who eat from white plates. Researchers believe the issue stems from the loss of depth perception people with Alzheimer’s experience.
3. Give one item at a time:
Serve one part of the meal at a time. Once they have finished one part, add the next one to their plate. Try serving nutrient-rich foods first in case you are unable to keep their interest long enough to finish an entire meal.
4. Adapt your serving pieces and utensils:
Serve food in a bowl and use a larger spoon to help reduce frustration. If your loved one is still unable to eat independently, finger foods can be another option. Cut food into bite-sized pieces and avoid nuts, hot dogs, sausage, celery, raw carrots, and popcorn to help avoid choking.
5. Model eating behavior:
If you can, sit down to eat with senior loved one at mealtime. You can model the behavior you want them to follow, such as drinking a protein shake or eating a hamburger. It will also allow you to gently assist them if necessary.
One final tip for making mealtime go more smoothly is to create menus that contain their favorite foods. They will be more likely to eat if the meal contains foods they have always enjoyed.
Finding the right mealtime strategy for you and your loved one might take time, so try to be patient and flexible.
What Does Dementia Feel Like?
It’s sometimes hard to understand what living with dementia is like, but the Virtual Dementia Tour® is helping to change that. See how staff members at The Bristal are taking a walk in someone else’s shoes - and how it’s changing how we think about caring for people with dementia.