Eating and drinking: managing the need for proper nutrition
For most people, choosing and preparing a good meal is one of the joys of life. For people with dementia, however, it can be a confusing and overwhelming task. Physical side effects of these conditions can also make eating and drinking challenging or cause loss of appetite.
All of this makes it important for caregivers to assure that people with dementia are getting regular, nutritious meals to keep their bodies healthy.
Why is this important?
Older people don’t always eat the right things. They tend to be stubborn about asking for their favorite foods, refusing those they dislike, and treating themselves with choices that may not be best for them. Add in the component of dementia, and the issue of getting the right foods at the right times can become a real problem. The wrong nutritional choices or a lack of enough nutrition can lead to health complications such as a weakened immune system, sleep disorders and even depression.
Basic nutrition tips
The essential components of a well balanced, nutritious diet for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is basically the same as for everyone else. That means, as a caregiver, you can prepare and eat the same meals, thereby improving your health at the same time. Following these guidelines can help take some of the guesswork out of providing the right kinds of food:
Offer a variety of healthy food choices.
That includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and foods with lean protein.
Include dietary fiber to prevent constipation.
Examples of these foods are flaxseed and whole grain products, as well as many fruits and vegetables.
Minimize foods with high saturated fats and high cholesterol,
such as butter, hydrogenated shortening, lard and fatty meats.
Keep an eye on sugar and salt.
Refined sugars found in many processed foods are high in calories and little else. Foods high in sodium should also be limited since they can lead to high blood pressure. Many alternative sweeteners are available in place of sugar, and spices and herbs may be used to enhance flavors in place of salt.
Encourage sufficient fluid intake throughout the day.
A marked water bottle can be a handy reminder that a person is drinking enough. Also, providing soups, smoothies, fruit or other foods high in water content can help a person stay hydrated.
It’s okay to splurge.
The occasional “decadent” treat is perfectly acceptable — especially if it leads to a shared moment of joy.
Dealing with changes in appetite.
When a person unexpectedly doesn’t want to eat, it may be more than just a bout of stubbornness or a routine loss of appetite. Try to determine if any of these factors are behind the change in eating behavior:
- Cognitive problems in recognizing the food being offered
- Constipation and bloating
- Impaired sense of taste and smell
- Painful chewing due to ill fitting dentures or another cause
- Side effects from medication
- Difficulty swallowing
- Delusions about the food (fear of poisoning etc.)
Pain during eating and other medical issues require a follow-up with your doctor. For other causes of decreased appetite, try preparing favorite foods to spur interest in eating. Lack of physical activity can be a factor so encourage simple exercises such as a walk before meals. More frequent meals, but with smaller portions, may also help.
If a person’s refusal to eat leads to weight loss, consult a doctor for advice on nutritional supplements.
Middle and late stage mealtimes.
The changes that occur during middle and late stage dementia may require special attention to make eating safe and manageable. The following tips may be useful:
Avoid choking hazards.
Swallowing problems are a side effect of dementia conditions. Be alert for signs of choking and try to minimize the chances by cutting food into small pieces, grinding food or offering soft foods such as applesauce or scrambled eggs.
Keep things simple.
Limit distractions during meals and keep table settings and utensils simple as well. Serve entrées and side dishes individually to avoid confusing the person with too many choices.
Eat together — and take enough time.
No one enjoys eating alone. So keep the social aspect of your mealtimes by eating together as much as possible. Give the person with dementia plenty of time for their meal and remind them to chew and swallow.
A word about brain-healthy eating
The role of diet in cognitive health is currently an important research topic. Studies indicate that serving brain-healthy foods could play a role in slowing the progress of some dimensions.
Life in the Moment offers a MemoryMeals tool that will provide original brain-healthy recipes, meal planning guidelines, grocery lists and other time-saving tools for people working to keep their loved ones healthy. To download the MemoryMeals app, click here. [LINK TO DOWNLOAD]