Living with Dementia: 7 Ways to Make Mealtimes Easier

Written by Carewell Staff on Wed Dec 02 2020.

Living with Dementia: 7 Ways to Make Mealtimes Easier

Maybe it starts with a botched recipe. (Who hasn't confused teaspoons and tablespoons at some point in their lives?) Or a forgotten burner. (Everyone leaves the stove on from time to time, right?) But then they forget to eat altogether and you realize that Alzheimer's is starting to affect your loved one's most basic instincts.

Confusion over when and what to eat often mark the end of a person's independence when they are suffering from dementia, and typically mean it’s time for a caregiver to step in. Proper nutrition is extremely critical for Alzheimer's patients, and it usually has to come with an extra dose of compassion and ingenuity.

Though every person with dementia is different, there are a couple of common symptoms that make eating more difficult, like:

  • Loss of peripheral vision. Often known as “safety vision,” many people with dementia cannot see on either side of their bodies, making tasks more difficult. For example, if they’re talking to someone next to them, they may not even notice they’ve been given a plate of food.

  • More cravings for sweets. Dementia can diminish taste buds, leading to intense cravings for high-sugar foods.

  • Diminished appetite for proteins. With the craving of sweets comes a distaste of high-protein foods, making it more difficult for loved ones to gain or maintain muscle mass.

  • Loss of contrast sensitivity, or an inability to distinguish an object from its background. Often, those with dementia cannot see that they have food on the plate in front of them, especially if the food is a similar color as the plate.

  • Weight loss. When someone starts losing weight, it's usually a sign that they aren’t coping well with the disease. A person with Alzheimer's can literally forget to be hungry.

Luckily, there are a few tried and true tips to help caregivers get through this challenging time. Here are seven of our favorites:

Enjoy meals in a quiet space with few distractions.

People with Alzheimer's do best making simple choices in a calm environment. Choose a quiet room where your loved one can focus on the food in front of them. Set aside plenty of time to eat. Rushing through dinner makes the ordeal more frustrating for you and the one you love.

Try mixing vegetables into milkshakes or smoothies.

If your loved one has been craving sweets, sneak some of the healthier ingredients into the food you’re already preparing. Blending vegetables into a milkshake or smoothie helps your loved one satisfy their sweet tooth while squeezing in some of their dietary needs. Bonus point if you can include nutritional supplements like the ones below.

Sneak in extra calories.

If a person isn’t eating enough or refuses to eat a variety of foods, consider supplements. Boost Food Supplement or Ensure Food Supplement Drink are great options to boost nutritional or protein intake. Another bonus point if you can bake the supplements into foods like muffins.

Serve finger foods that are high in protein.

Many people with dementia tend to wander around, making it difficult to focus on a full meal. Provide finger foods that can be eaten while walking, like almond butter or natural peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut into quarters. If your loved one has trouble swallowing, serve soft foods and consider thickening food additives.

Mimic the motions of eating.

Anytime you want your loved one to complete an action, mimicking is the best tool in your shed. Those with dementia tend to mimic the actions of the person they’re watching. Demonstrate what you’d like them to do (like take a bite of food), then point at them and say “Now you.”

Use colored plates.

Many older adults with dementia suffer from an inability to distinguish objects from their background. This means if you’re serving mashed potatoes or a chicken breast on a white plate, your family member may not even know there’s food in front of them. Switching to a brightly colored plate makes it easier for those with contrast sensitivities to enjoy meals.

Practice hand-under-hand.

“Hand-under-hand” is a technique pioneered by dementia specialist Teepa Snow that helps calm your loved ones and promote independence. If mimicking isn’t working, or if you want to take a moment to calm your loved one, this is a great tool.

  • Start by standing on the dominant side of your loved one’s body. Since this is where they’ll have more motor memory, it’ll make it easier for them to hold onto you (and in this case, a spoon).

  • Hold hands as if you were engaging in a handshake. If you’re planning to help them use their utensil, you’ll want to place the spoon gently in between your hands

  • Slide your hand up and around, so you’re palm to palm and thumb to thumb. Lots of palm contact is a great tactic for promoting a sense of calm.

  • If you want to take an extra moment to calm your loved one, it can help to turn your hands so that their hand is on top of yours. You could also place your free hand on top of theirs for an added layer of warmth

  • Finally, when you’re ready, you can begin to guide the utensil and help them eat. This practice is a great way to hold a spoon or fork together. That way, your loved one can enjoy the independence of feeding themselves, with your added strength and guidance.

See our 14 tips on how to talk to a parent with dementia.

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