Having a healthy and balanced diet is important for both our physical and mental health. If we don’t eat and drink enough, or enough of the right things, our bodies are likely to experience negative effects, such as dehydration, weight loss, and constipation. Someone with dementia may find these health problems particularly difficult as health issues can cause increased confusion and agitation.
If you are caring for someone with dementia, ensuring they stick to a healthy diet can be difficult, but is essential. Someone with dementia may have problems with eating and drinking; for example, they may:
- forget to eat or drink
- find it difficult to prepare their own food or drinks
- have difficulty recognising food items
Someone with dementia may also experience a change in appetite or taste. For example, certain colours, textures or smells, may put them off food and drinks; even those that they previously liked. As dementia progresses, a person may naturally lose their appetite and start to lose weight. However, it’s important to ensure, to the best of your ability, that they continue to eat and drink as well as possible.
The following are some of the things that we, as carers can do.
Meal Time Environment
The environment that the person is in during meal times can significantly impact their appetite and willingness to eat and drink. Reducing noise can help, so try turning off the TV or radio, and playing familiar, soothing music instead. The room should also be well lit so that the person can see what they are eating. If they recognise the food, they are more likely to eat it. The same goes for cutlery and crockery. Plain coloured plates and cups can be helpful for the person to see their food more easily. To overcome visual difficulties, using a contrasting-coloured placement means that the plate can also be easily seen.
Timing of Meals
It’s important to ensure meals are timed appropriately for the person in your care. Don’t try to feed the person at a time when they are tired or distressed. In addition, ensure the person has enough time to eat and does not feel rushed, which may mean preparing and serving the evening meal earlier than you normally would. This will also help to avoid afternoon or evening restlessness (sometimes called sundowning behaviours) affecting the meal.
Try to involve the person in your care at meal times by asking them what they want to eat. If they get easily confused or struggle to make decisions, giving them two options to choose from can help. Depending on their ability, they may also be interested in helping to prepare the meal.
Bear in mind that someone living with dementia may cope better with small, regular portions rather than large meals. When choosing food for the person in your care, ensure the food is easy for them to eat and that they enjoy it. A person with a sweet tooth may want to eat dessert before their main meal, or they may be more likely to eat savoury food with sweet condiments like ketchup.
It is important for a person with dementia to stay hydrated. The recommended fluid intake is eight glasses per day. However, someone with dementia may not always know when they are thirsty, or they may not be able to communicate that they need something to drink. As such, try to ensure the person has a drink beside them at all times. This doesn’t always have to be plain water; try adding flavoured squash or offer them an alternative as well as hot or cold drinks. If the person struggles to lift or hold a cup, you may need to assist them in drinking. Alternatively, try different shapes and sizes of cup to see what works best, or use their favourite mug or cup for all beverages.
Someone living with dementia may need assistance with ensuring their cupboards and fridges are adequately stocked in a safe manner. Try to help them store food in a way that is easy for them to access, for example, take cereals out of their boxes and instead store them in clear boxes.
It can be useful to buy a number of frozen ready meals that the person can keep in their freezer. They may need help to reheat frozen food, so adding labels with cooking instructions on the top of the meal can be useful. In addition, check the person’s cupboards regularly and dispose of any food that is out of date.
For more information on this article, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Brain Sparks. We know that caring for a loved one with dementia is not easy. However, you are not in it alone. There are a number of resources that can help, such as caregiver support groups. If you are working with people with dementia in an aged care facility, you could contact someone like The Dining Experience Specialists who specialise in optimising and innovating your dining experience and meal service.
Or, why not try the Dementia Live® course that immerses carers in the experience of living with dementia? This empowers carers with powerful insights for effectively communicating with patients.