Guardian Carers Feature on BBC News London

How to make mealtimes easier for dementia patients

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If you care for a person with dementia, whether as a family carer or a professional carer, you will recognise that mealtimes can be particularly difficult sometimes.

It is important to understand what causes the dementia patient to react the way they do, why they have certain attitudes towards food and mealtimes and what can be done to change this? In this article, you will learn all of this as well as helpful tips on keeping dementia patients healthy by promoting good nutritional intake.

What are the causes of poor nutrition for dementia patients?

If you understand what causes poor nutrition for dementia patients and why they may be particularly adamant when it comes to mealtimes you will be able to make mealtimes easier for them and for yourself. At the same time, you can even make mealtimes fun and enjoyable time for them.

There are a number of factors which can account for poor nutrition for dementia patients. Their lack of interest in food, poor eating habits, loss of appetite or resistance to eating can be related to a wide range of issues such as:

  • Memory loss - dementia patients may forget to eat or drink
  • Agitation - agitation and other such changes in behaviour can make it difficult for dementia patients to eat
  • Depression: a dementia patient can have a lack of appetite if they are depressed
  • Constipation: this happens due to a lack of fibre in the diet, insufficient hydration and lack of exercise which ultimately leads to a lack of appetite
  • Sensory changes: decrease in the sense of smell and taste contribute to a general lack of interest in food
  • Trouble multitasking: a dementia patient can have trouble following steps or do multiple tasks when preparing food
  • Poor coordination: dementia patients can have trouble using utensils
  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing: a dementia patient will have trouble doing any of these in the later stages of the disease
  • Medication - some medicines can result in a lack of appetite for dementia patients
  • Dental problems: dementia patients can avoid food or beverages as a result of dental problems

What are the best ways to make mealtimes easier for dementia patients?

Now that you have identified the possible causes as to why a dementia patient may have a lack of interest in food, poor eating habits, loss of appetite or resistance to eating you can put in place the solutions to help them have better nutrition and generally better health. Better nutrition for a dementia patient will improve their general wellbeing and improve their mental health. They may be less agitated and feel less depressed, for instance.

There are certain ‘rules’ which can be followed to make mealtimes easier for dementia patients. It all starts with a routine. This entails eating at the same time each day as much as possible. If long meals do not work, consider switching to smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day.

An important part of making mealtimes easier for dementia patients is making sure they are adequately hydrated. Offer them water to drink frequently throughout the day. Also, make sure to include foods with high water content into their diet.

When serving food to a dementia patient make sure to cut it into bite-sized pieces or offer them finger food. Try to offer them one type of food at a time in order to avoid agitation. Moreover, cook their favourite foods and make sure to include generous amounts of fruits and vegetables, as well as grains in their diet.

When trying to encourage a dementia patient to eat it’s great to lead by example. You can demonstrate how to hold a spoon, how to chew or how to drink from a cup. You can even hold gently hold their hand to help them with the utensils. Also, choose dishes which are the easiest to use for a dementia patient, such as bowls instead of plates and spoons instead of forks. A good tip is also using white dishes to avoid confusion.

What should be avoided during mealtimes for dementia patients?

Dementia patients can get easily irritated, agitated, confused or distracted. There are certain things which you can do to make mealtimes easier for them and some which you should definitely avoid. Among these are caffeine, which can increase the risk of dehydration which then leads to a lack of appetite. Moreover, avoiding foods which are difficult to chew or swallow such as nuts or raw hard vegetables is a must. Alcohol intake is certainly not recommended for dementia patients, as it can contribute to agitation and confusion.

In order to ensure that mealtimes go smoothly and that the dementia patient will actually want to eat, there are certain other details which may help. Making the eating area quiet can be a major help, as creating a calm environment, without any noise from the TV or radio will relax them and put them at ease.

Patience is key when it comes to caring for dementia patients and it’s no different with regards to mealtimes either. Be patient with the dementia patient, do not rush them, encourage them to eat at their own pace and wait for them to finish their meal.

Mealtimes can be turned from a stressful and difficult activity into an enjoyable and relaxing time for both the dementia patient and yourself. This is a great time for social interaction. You should make them feel supported by smiling and using a warm tone of voice, encouraging them to speak about how they feel, how their day has been or even recount memories from the past. You may even try playing some of their favourite tunes in the background, on a low volume.

Mealtimes for dementia patients don’t have to be a difficult time. If you uncover the root causes and find the solutions which work best for the dementia patient, they can turn into the best time of the day.

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