Savor the moment
To enhance the dining experience, it’s important to know the person’s likes and dislikes and plan meals accordingly. Have the meal ready to serve prior to sitting your loved one at the table. Provide a small number of food choices and serve small portions frequently throughout the day – large portions can be overwhelming which can prevent them from eating any of it. Cut up foods prior to serving them, so they can focus on the food and not the mechanics of trying to eat. Sit with your loved one during the meal. If you have to assist them with eating and drinking, talk about what you’re offering to help remind them of tastes and flavors. Eat with them. Often, they will do what you’re doing and you can gently remind them throughout the meal if they get distracted.
Set the mood
Meals should be relaxed and unhurried in a well-lit and calm setting, free of distractions. Because of possible depth-perception problems, use contrasting colored plates and linens. It can be difficult to see food such as mashed potatoes on a white plate on a white table cloth. Provide the right equipment for independent eating, such as scooped plates, large-handled silverware, and cups with lids. If utensils are cumbersome or frustrating, provide finger foods. If the person is able, have them help set the table and prepare the meal. If your loved one enjoys music, playing soft, instrumental music can help create a soothing mealtime experience.
Drink it in
Dehydration is of particular concern among people with dementia as it can aggravate the symptoms of the disease. Therefore, it’s always important to have plenty of liquids available with the meals. Plain water can be boring, even for those in the best of health, so to make beverages more enjoyable, flavor water with lemon or orange slices. Add additional fluids by serving Jell-O, soup, pudding, popsicles, smoothies or “mocktails.” Keep fluids within easy reach during the meal and use travel cups to prevent spills. Finally, avoid really hot or cold drinks as some people with dementia may lose the ability to judge temperature.
Tips for Making Mealtimes Easier and More Enjoyable
- View mealtimes as opportunities for social interaction and success for yourself and the person with dementia. A warm and happy tone of voice can set the mood.
- Try to make mealtimes calm, comfortable, and reassuring. Be patient, avoid rushing through meals, and give the person enough time to finish the meal.
- Be sensitive to possible frustration, confusion and anxiety during mealtimes and look for ways to reduce these feelings.
- Maintain familiar routines and rituals, but be flexible and adapt to the person’s changing needs.
- Minimize distractions during mealtimes. For example, turn off the television or radio, and eliminate unneeded items from the table.
- Offer appealing foods that have familiar flavors, varied textures, and different colors, and give the person opportunities to make choices.
- Make nutritious finger foods and nutrient-rich homemade shakes or shake products (unless the person is lactose intolerant) available throughout the day.
- In the earlier stages of dementia, be aware of the possibility of overeating. If this occurs, provide a balanced diet, limit snacks, and offer engaging activities as alternatives to eating.
- If the person is on a reduced-sodium or sugar-restricted diet because of hypertension, diabetes, or another medical condition, keep foods with high salt or sugar content out of reach or in a locked cabinet.
- Help the person drink plenty of fluids throughout the day—dehydration can lead to problems such as increased constipation, confusion, and dizziness.
- Use adaptive eating tools as needed. Talk with an occupational therapist about which tools might be helpful, as well as other strategies to make eating and mealtime routines more successful.
- Identify and work to resolve issues such as depression, forgetting to wear glasses or hearing aids, wearing poorly fitting dentures, and use of appetite-suppressing medications, which may impair the person’s ability or desire to eat.
- Maintain routine dental checkups and daily oral health care.
- Be alert to and address potential safety issues, such as the person forgetting to turn off the stove after cooking and the increased risk of choking because of chewing and swallowing problems that may arise as the disease progresses.
People with Alzheimer’s or dementia do not need a special diet. As with anyone, eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet is important for overall health.
Proper nutrition is important to keep the body strong and healthy. For a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia, poor nutrition may increase behavioral symptoms and cause weight loss.
The basic nutrition tips below can help boost the person with dementia’s health and your health as a caregiver, too.
- Provide a balanced diet with a variety of foods.
Offer vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean protein foods.
- Limit foods with high saturated fat and cholesterol.
Some fat is essential for health — but not all fats are equal. Go light on fats that are bad for heart health, such as butter, solid shortening, lard and fatty cuts of meats.
- Cut down on refined sugars.
Often found in processed foods, refined sugars contain calories but lack vitamins, minerals and fiber. You can reduce a sweet tooth with healthier options like fruit or juice-sweetened baked goods. But note that in the later-stages of Alzheimer’s, if loss of appetite is a problem, adding sugar to foods may encourage eating.
- Limit foods with high sodium and use less salt.
Most people in North America consume too much sodium, which affects blood pressure. Cut down by using spices or herbs to season food as an alternative.
As the disease progresses, loss of appetite and weight loss may become concerns. In such cases, the doctor may suggest supplements between meals to add calories.
Staying hydrated may be a problem as well. Encourage fluids by offering small cups of water or other liquids throughout the day or foods with high water content, such as fruit, soups, milkshakes and smoothies.