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Helping Persons with Dementia with Eating

Did you know?

Older individuals with dementia are less able to recognize they are thirsty. Signs of dehydration include dry, cottony mouth, sticky saliva, and dark urination. Make sure that your loved one does not become dehydrated.

Video

Watch a video that describes helping people with dementia with eating (3 minutes 45 seconds long).

For people with dementia, meal time can become a complicated and even frustrating event, especially as their memories and coordination deteriorate. Meals are important to not only satisfy hunger but also to provide an opportunity to slow down, be with others, and socialize. It is therefore important to understand how you can best help your loved one meet these needs according to his or her current capabilities.

In earlier stages of dementia, your loved one may be able to eat a meal without any problems. However, you may find that he or she needs help with tasks that have multiple steps, such as assembling a sandwich or perhaps creating a salad. You can schedule simpler meals or you can simply offer to help your loved one when these more complicated tasks come up.

Your loved one may eventually become "messy" at meal time, playing with or picking at his or her food. Your loved one may also start getting upset when dining out at a restaurant or when staying in. It is important to recognize that these actions are often signs that he or she is feeling frustrated by not being able to perform or remember how to eat and drink. You may also find that your loved one simply does not seem to be interested in the food that is on the plate or that he or she does not appear to be hungry. This may be because he or she is feeling less able to self-feed.

Suggestions for Caregivers

If your loved one is not eating as much at set meal times or is getting hungry between meals, consider providing him or her with several smaller meals during the day. Set out snacks in clear view. If multiple meals would be too difficult to plan, consider serving high-calorie beverages or breakfast drinks. Also, consider visiting a nutritionist or dietician for help understanding what nutritional needs your loved one might have and for meal suggestions or plans.

  • Reduce noise in the dining environment

    It can be difficult and upsetting for someone with dementia to concentrate on the task of eating if there is a lot of noise or activity going on in the environment.

  • Suggestions: Try to ensure that meals are provided in settings that are quiet, clean, and simple in terms of their decor. A quiet, calm atmosphere will help ensure that your loved one can enjoy the meal at his/her own pace, rather than feeling rushed.

  • Provide simple meal choices

    In addition to noise in the environment, having too many food options to choose from can also frustrate individuals with dementia.

    Suggestions: Try to plate small portions, perhaps no more than one or two options on the same plate at once.

  • Show your loved one how

    Often times, your loved one may just be missing that one step or cue to continue on with the meal.

    Suggestions: If you are eating with your loved one, get their attention and demonstrate what you would like him or her to do, such as using a fork and knife to cut a piece of meat or spreading jam on a piece of toast. By resisting the urge to feed your loved one, you respect his or her individuality and give him or her the chance to do it independently.

  • Make eating easier

    When it becomes difficult for your loved one to use utensils such as forks, knives, and spoons.

    Suggestions: Try cutting up food into smaller bite-sized pieces or using finger foods. Also, try using straws and cups with lids for your loved ones so that he or she can more easily drink beverages. Serving meals in bowls rather than on plates as the sides can often make it easier for your loved one to pick up food.

A Special Note on Smoking and Drinking

If your loved one drinks or smokes, try to monitor him or her while he or she does each one. Individuals with dementia may not realize they are putting themselves at risk and they might forget when they recently drank or smoked. For drinking, reduce the number of alcohol bottles in the environment or even dilute bottles. For smoking, ensure that environments are fire-resistant and have smoke alarms.

Late Stages of Dementia

In later stages of dementia, the ability to swallow becomes compromised and care must be used to avoid food or beverages getting into the airway or lungs, which can cause pneumonia. Eventually, you may have to remind your loved one to chew and even to swallow. Once you are doing the feeding, try alternating a solid food with a sip of a liquid. Other tips for feeding in late stage dementia include the following:

  • Do not rush eating – Allow at least an hour for a meal.
  • Keep the person upright and comfortable while eating and for 30 minutes afterwards.
  • Use soft foods – Bite-sized foods and eventually mashed or purée’d foods may be needed.
  • Learn the Heimlich maneuver in case of choking. Classes may be offered at a local hospital or through the Red Cross.
  • Use caution with watery liquids – Thicken liquids using cornstarch or unflavored gelatin because, once swallowing becomes a problem in dementia, the person is more likely to choke on thin liquids.
  • Monitor bowel movements and if 3 days pass without one, consider adding a natural laxative, such as prunes or bran to the diet
  • Get medical evaluation for weight loss.

Resources

Eating

Source: Alzheimer's Association
Description: This web page provides suggestions for making mealtime easier, minimizing nutrition problems, and encouraging independence related to eating.

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Dementia-How to Encourage Healthy Eating

Source: Better Health Channel (Australia – Victoria)
Description: This web page provides advice on how to deal with appetite loss, overeating, sweet cravings, and problems at the table in persons with dementia. Ideas for things you can try are provided for each topic. There is also a section of ideas on where to find help as well as a list of things to remember when you encounter eating problems.

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Eating and Drinking

Source: Alzheimer's Society (United Kingdom)
Description: This page discusses how to cope with common eating problems in dementia, offering tips on appetite loss, overeating, and a healthy diet.

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Tips on Eating (Early and Middle Stages of Dementia)

Source: ElderCare Online
Description: This web page provides 10 caregiver tips on meal time and nutrition for those caring for individuals in early to middle stages of dementia.

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Dementia-How to Encourage Healthy Eating

Source: Better Health Channel (Australia – Victoria)
Description: This web page provides advice on how to deal with appetite loss, overeating, sweet cravings, and problems at the table in persons with dementia. Ideas for things you can try are provided for each topic. There is also a section of ideas on where to find help as well as a list of things to remember when you encounter eating problems.

Rate, comment or learn more about this resource