Caring for a senior loved one who has Alzheimer’s can present many challenges for a family caregiver. Making mealtime go smoothly might be one of them. It’s important to identify what your family member’s struggles are and develop strategies to work around them.
Mealtime Struggles for People with Alzheimer’s Disease
A few mealtime challenges that are common for people with Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia include:
• Diminished appetite: Your loved one may not recognize their body’s hunger triggers any longer or they may be taking a medication that decreases their appetite. A loss of smell or taste can further exacerbate these problems. All of this may make an older adult with dementia less interested in food at mealtime.
• Oral health problems: It isn’t uncommon for someone living with Alzheimer’s to experience weight loss. If it’s a significant amount, it may lead to a problem with their dentures fitting properly. Caregivers may also struggle to convince a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease to cooperate with dental care. Lack of good oral hygiene may result in an underlying oral health problem that can make it painful for them to chew.
• Difficulty with coordination: For most people with Alzheimer’s disease, hand to eye coordination eventually becomes an issue that may make mealtime physically and emotionally difficult. The frustration of trying to use silverware and being unsuccessful can lead to a loss of dignity and lower self-esteem.
• Anxiety and agitation: One of the more common struggles for both the person living with Alzheimer’s as well as their family members is managing agitation. It can make sitting still long enough to eat difficult or even impossible to do.
Creating a Supportive Mealtime for a Person with Alzheimer’s
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to adapt your family member’s environment and modify mealtime activities to allow a senior loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease feel successful. Here are a few to consider:
1. Eliminate distractions: Turn off the television, cell phone and radio. Try to create a corner where you can quietly sit down for each meal with your loved one. If your older family member responds well to music, turn on the radio. By providing a calm, consistent environment for meals, you can help decrease agitation and encourage eating.
2. Pay attention to visuals: Use a brightly colored placemat with a different colored plate to create contrast. This approach will allow them to distinguish the plate from the table, as well as identify the food on the plate. Avoid linens and dishes with busy patterns. The Red Plate Study at Boston University found when people with Alzheimer’s are served meals on red plates, they eat 25% more than those who eat from white plates. Researchers believe the issue stems from the loss of depth perception people with Alzheimer’s experience.
3. Give one item at a time: Serve one part of the meal at a time. Once they have finished one part, add the next one to their plate. Try serving nutrient-rich foods first in case you are unable to keep your senior family member’s interest long enough to finish an entire meal.
4. Adapt your serving pieces and utensils: Serve food in a bowl and use a larger spoon to help reduce frustration. If your loved one is still unable to eat independently, finger foods can be another option. Cut food up in to bite-sized pieces and avoid nuts, hotdogs, sausage, celery, raw carrots, and popcorn to prevent choking.
5. Model eating behavior: If you can, sit down to eat with your senior loved one at mealtime. You can model the behavior you want them to follow such as drinking a protein shake or eating a hamburger. It will also allow you to gently assist them if necessary.
Our final tip for making mealtime go more smoothly is to create menus that contain their favorite foods. They will be more likely to eat if the meal contains foods they have always enjoyed.
Learn More About Alzheimer’s and Mealtime
To help adult children and family caregivers learn more about nutrition for a loved one with dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association created a resource center. Food, Eating and Alzheimer’s contains information ranging from creating easy-to-chew foods to cooking tips for caregivers.