People living with Alzheimer’s or dementia often eat less than they used to. Reasons for this may include problems with chewing, swallowing or digesting food. We have compiled a list here of 8 practical tips for helping someone with dementia to eat more.
Sometimes people just lose interest in food. This can happen for a long list of reasons including loss of taste, the ability to smell, memory loss, and thinking they have already eaten. Certain medications can also affect appetite.
Eating is effected as the disease progresses and ensuring someone living with dementia eats a nutritious meal, or to eat enough, can become a real practical and emotional issue for the carer. We hope these ideas help.
1. The plate matters
What colour plate are you serving food on?
In a study conducted at Boston University, researchers found that patients eating from red plates consumed 25 percent more food than those eating from white plates. This appears to be connected with the way someone living with dementia sees food on a plate, and if you can’t really see food on a white background you are much less likely to eat it.
Yellow plates have also shown promising results, with the NHS trailing an innovative program across three hospitals in 2016. The use of colour helps to stimulate interest in dementia patents, as often they have trouble distinguishing between colour. If the food is too close to the colour palette of the plate, dementia suffers can also struggle to distinguish the contrast between the two and realise their is food to be eaten.
A company called Eatwell tableware have a fantastic selection of innovative table wear designer for those with dementia or motor impairment.
2. Make eating easier
At some stage in the dementia patients life, there’s a good chance eating will get harder, and if so using utensils can also become an awful lot easier. Consider finger food to help them eat more frequently, little and often.
Some examples include:
- Fruits (Raspberries, Strawberries, Banana and Grapes are great examples and have strong contrasting colours).
- Nuts (Almonds and Brazil Nuts are protein packed and contain essential fats).
- Crisps (Healthier options are available, even vegetable crisps).
- Chicken Nuggets, Chips (within reason).
- Vegetables (Carrots and Celery are great examples).
We always want to make sure that the person with dementia feels as comfortable as possible whilst sitting with you at the dinner table.
When you sit down at the table, sit directly in front of the other person, make eye contact, smile and wait for them to smile back at you. Then you can start eating without talking (You start first). Try to keep quiet, be patient , keep making eye contact and wait for them to follow your lead.
It’s important to remember that ‘being patient’ is the most important part here. You might have to do this for a while before it starts working. You are trying to break a bad habit and replace it with a good habit and these things take time. The more frequently you follow this routine the easier it will become for you.
4. Don’t get cross while trying to convince someone to eat
Trying to convince a person living with Alzheimer’s who is at the point of not eating, that they must eat is counterproductive. Trying to explain why is also detrimental. You need to be the food guide. Your role as the guide is to show this person how to eat each and every bite, just like it’s the first time they have ever eaten. Keep using strong eye contact and a nice big smile and not disrupt the person by talking.
It can be frustrating when you are trying to help someone and it is not working as effectively as you may hope. Imagine that you are teaching a child how to tie their shoe laces for the first time, but being unable to communicate with them. They will watch how you do it and slowly copy, but if you don’t show them a demonstration they are not going to be able to learn. If you find yourself becoming agitated, take a deep breathe and remember that you are helping them, regardless how long it takes.
5. Arrange the food on the plate
You may need to experiment with different sizes, textures and flavours of food to see which the person responds to the best. Here are some tips to help you change it up.
- Add variety in the colour of food, different colour vegetables help to really brighten up the food.
- Try less quantities of food and fewer individual items on the plate.
- Think about what types of food they have always enjoyed in the past. Give these to them as often as possible and put it on the plate with another food right next to it
- Cut up the food (especially meat) into small pieces
- Change the texture of the food (potatoes could be mashed, boiled, baked for example)
6. Praise the food
One of the most common phrases said at the dinner table, whether at home or at a restaurant is ‘How is the food?’. If someone takes a bite of something that you are both eating and they love the food, it makes us even more attracted to our own food before we have tried it ourselves.
We want to use this to our advantage when dealing with someone who is struggling to eat. It does not have to be a long discussion about the food, but a simple ‘Wow this food is fantastic’ can spark an interest in the other person and encourage them to try their food. Try this the next time you sit down together, make sure you are still taking the lead by eating first and giving that positive comment right away.
7. Stop talking
People living with Alzheimer’s and dementia are easily distracted and can get confused if you try to get them to multitask. We want to make the job of eating their food to be as simple as possible and for them to feel comfortable and relaxed while doing so. Stop talking to the person while you are eating with them, small comments about the food are beneficial but not too much. Make sure that they can focus on the task at hand, one thing at a time.
8. Eat small all day long
Contrary to what we believe, we do not need 3 main meals a day. Research shows that there is no major differences between 3 regular meals a day, 2 large meals a day or 5 little ones. In fact 5 little meals can help to regulate steady blood pressure which is an added bonus. If you can only get your parent to eat small amounts, that’s not a problem as long as this is at regular periods throughout the day. It’s all about finding what works best for you.
A great tool that Carers can use is The DMAT (Dementia Mealtime Assessment Tool) “The DMAT enables carers to assess, select interventions and generate a person centred care plan to support mealtime eating abilities and meal behaviours in people with advancing dementia.” You can learn more about the DMAT and it’s benefits on their website.