As people progress on their journey with dementia, eating and sufficient nutrition often becomes a tricky issue. In some cases people may forget or become distracted, but it is also true that Alzheimer’s and dementia patients often have difficulty eating because of physical problems such as chewing, swallowing or digesting food.
It can be distressing to watch a loved one lose interest in food, and the temptation to cajole is great. This rarely encourages someone with dementia to eat, however. Subtle changes can produce a far better result – we outline 10 top tips below.
- Think about making a positive atmosphere before you even sit down to eat. Maybe sing one of their favourite songs while you’re preparing food, to put them in a positive frame of mind.
- Make eye contact and smile – take the pressure off while eating. If possible sit directly opposite them so they can pick up on your cues – picking up cutlery, chewing etc.
- Try positive reinforcement before you start to eat – praise the food. ‘Yum! This is delicious’ could help encourage someone to try something. Don’t go on about it for too long, though, or they may get distracted.
- Some people may struggle with cutlery. Consider finger food – sandwiches, strips of chicken, crisps, cut up fruit.
- Don’t talk once the meal has started. This may seem odd, but Alzheimer’s and dementia patients are easily distracted, and chatting while eating counts as multitasking. One thing at a time is best.
- If they are finding full meals hard to complete, consider offering little and often. Maybe a few bites of a sandwich and then an hour later some crisps might be easier for them than a whole meal all at once.
- Don’t rush them. Patients can become agitated and distressed if they feel hurried and pushed into eating faster. People living with dementia are naturally slower.
- Don’t assume that if they spit out their food, they don’t like it. It may be too hot, or too big a mouthful for them to chew. Or they may just be frustrated by the difficulties they are having in eating. Try to notice their body language for clues if they are having difficulty verbalising what’s wrong.
- If you feel that physical issues are impairing their ability to eat, speak to an occupational therapist about aids that can help, such as specially adapted cutlery, lipped (high-sided) plates or non-spill cups.
- A study conducted at Boston University found that dementia patients eating from red plates consumed 25 percent more food than those eating from white plates. Worth a try!