Limit distractions, add encouragement, and make eating a social event.
Among the many challenges of helping people with Alzheimer’s disease, one is the most critical of all. They have to eat.
But often they don’t. They may no longer recognize the foods on their plate, have poor fitting dentures (making eating painful), take medications that change appetite, not get enough physical activity, or have a decreased sense of smell and taste, says the Alzheimer’s Association (AA).
As a caregiver you can find that frustrating and difficult to overcome, but there are ways to encourage eating that focus on limiting distractions and choices, while adjusting for changes in perception.
Serving meals in quiet settings, away from television and other distractions
Keeping the table setting simple
Distinguishing the food from the plate (which compensates for a loss of spatial abilities)
Checking the food temperature
Serving only one or two foods at a time
Being flexible to food preferences that can change
Giving the person plenty of time to eat
It also helps to eat together, making meals a social event that a person with Alzheimer’s looks forward to. Research suggests that people eat better when they are in the company of others.
Know that the person you’re taking care of may not remember when or if he ate. If the person continues to ask about eating breakfast, consider serving several breakfasts — juice, followed by toast, followed by cereal.
It’s also important to make eye contact with the person you’re caring for, sitting directly in front of him and smiling frequently, while waiting for him to smile back at you. You start eating first, but keep quiet to limit distractions.
The proper mindset is learning to be a guide. A good guide demonstrates how your loved one should eat every meal.
Create a positive atmosphere. If you are going to talk, praise the food. Good positive reinforcement can be helpful, too. You might praise your patient for eating.
As dementia progresses, swallowing difficulties (called dysphagia) are more common, although they can vary from person to person. If a person is having trouble swallowing, a referral to a speech and language therapist can help, says the Alzheimer’s Society.
Problems can include your loved one holding food in their mouth, continuous chewing, and leaving harder-to-chew foods (such as hard vegetables) on their plate. Weight loss, malnutrition, and dehydration can also be consequences of swallowing difficulties.
Perhaps most important, it helps to remember that patience is a virtue in general, and a necessity for people with Alzheimer’s.
Their world may be completely unlike yours, with a different sense of time and space. That means allowing plenty of time to eat without chastising or blaming your loved one for not eating.
April 20, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN