When it comes to dementia, we know that simple, everyday tasks like bathing, getting dressed, and making a morning cup of coffee can become increasingly difficult and a challenge for those living with the disease. Regular and nutritious meals that keep our minds and bodies fueled also become difficult to prepare and eat. As a person’s cognitive function declines, it is easy to become overwhelmed with too many food choices, have difficulty eating with utensils, and even forget how to chew and swallow foods. Below are some tips on how to encourage independent eating for the Alzheimer’s patient.
It’s All in the Presentation
Changes in visual and spatial abilities make it hard for those with dementia to distinguish foods from one another, and even from the table setting. Patterns can feel overwhelming, so avoid using dishes, tablecloths, and placemats with an abundance of colors or designs.
The food itself should be visually appealing and be contrasting on a plate. Boston University Biopsychologist Alice Cronin-Golomb and her research partners designed the “Red Plate Study”, and found that patients eating from red plates consumed an astonishing 25 percent more food than those eating with white plates. Why such a difference? Patients with Alzheimer’s have a harder time processing contrast and depth perception, and a red plate often makes most foods stand out.
A Variety of Foods, In a Variety of Forms
As important as it is to eat a well-balanced diet, it is equally important to offer foods in a variety of different forms and textures, as swallowing problems become apparent in the middle and late stages of Alzheimer’s.
- Finger Foods – Bite-sized foods are easy to pick up. Consider preparing nutritious items like chicken fingers, fish sticks, orange slices, steamed broccoli and carrots, or tuna sandwiches.
- Liquids – Staying hydrated is hard for those living with dementia. Offer water throughout the day and other foods high in water content such as fruit.
- Easy to Digest – Whether food is bite-sized or in liquid form, it needs to be easy to swallow and digest. Ground meat is a great option, and soft foods like applesauce, yogurt, cottage cheese, and scrambled eggs are all nutritious and easy to eat. Soups, milkshakes, and smoothies are good alternative to foods that otherwise might be hard to chew.
It is easy to become overwhelmed at any point in the day when living with dementia. At mealtime, make sure to limit distractions that may take away from the task at hand. The eating environment should be quiet, and away from the television or other distractions. Too many foods at once may become overwhelming. Serve only one or two foods at a time, and make sure you allow plenty of time for eating. It takes time to chew and swallow properly, and you don’t want to rush the process.
Independence is Key
During any stage of Alzheimer’s, it is important to allow the person with dementia to be as independent as possible during mealtime. When appropriate, let them have a say in what foods they eat, and when. If they become forgetful and often ask for breakfast after they’ve already eaten, make breakfast an all-morning event, serving a bit here and there.
Remember, while a specific diet is not necessary for Alzheimer’s, a well-balanced, nutritious diet is. Poor nutrition may actually increase behavioral symptoms and cause weight loss for individuals with dementia. Good presentation, a variety of foods and textures, and limited distractions will all lead to healthy eating habits.
For more information about dementia and eating, please contact one of the professionals at Iris Memory Care. We’re here to guide you and your loved one on the path to a healthy lifestyle.