Maintaining good nutrition and positive eating habits while navigating through the stages of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias can be a struggle. Caregivers may face a number of challenges, including loss of appetite, loss of taste, and changing food preferences as well as the possible need to integrate special diets when necessary. All the while, caregivers work to ensure healthy eating while preventing dramatic weight loss by their family member.
Despite these potential challenges, there are ways family caregivers can plan ahead and establish routines that can make meal times more pleasant for an older adult living with dementia. Here are some of the best ways you can help your loved one with memory loss maintain a good quality of life:
Keep Meal Times Simple
The first step towards more pleasant meal times is making sure you are not overcomplicating things. Keep table settings and decorations to a minimum, as a way to limit potential distractions at the table. Start by serving familiar foods—preferably entrees and accompaniments with high nutritional value that your loved one regularly enjoys. Be sure to serve food in reasonable portions, making sure not to overwhelm your loved one by putting too much on his or her plate at one time.
With simplicity should also come flexibility and having alternative plans in place can help you avoid meal time ordeals. As the disease progresses, it is common to develop new inclinations and aversions towards particular foods. The person you are caring and cooking for may suddenly find the taste or texture of a certain food not to be to their liking. Rather than allowing such a drastic change to throw off the entire meal, have plans in place for easy-to-make alternate dishes or finger foods that can replace what your loved one does not want to eat. Try to take these changes in stride in the moment, even if you have concerns about how these changes in food preferences could affect their overall food intake.
Ditch the White Plates
Linda McCoy, a dietitian and dining services practice partner at St. John’s, points out that the use of colored plates helps distinguish food from the plate it is served on. “It’s about vision and many times with dementia people experience changes in their visual and spatial abilities,” explain McCoy. “Moving from white plates to colored plates makes sure that the person eating sees their food more clearly.” McCoy recommends going with a red plate for best results and avoiding neutral colors and patterned dishes.
For many people, meal times are and have always been an important part of their daily lives. As a caregiver for someone living with Alzheimer’s disease, it is your job to try and keep meal times meaningful!
Continue Eating Together
In addition to the social benefits of sharing a meal and the idea of convivium (sharing good food with good people), eating together with family members can help make a person living with dementia eat better. “Continuing to eat with your loved one helps with modelling the behavior you would like to see,” says McCoy. “If they see you eating these foods they are going to be more likely to mimic what you do and hopefully finish their meal without incident.”
Understand that mealtimes may end up taking longer than before and that is okay. “You just need to go with it,” says McCoy, pointing out that advanced planning can help. She recommends scheduling extra time for meals whenever possible in case things start to move a little slower. During meal preparation try to have a plan for reheating meals to keep them at temperature to make your loved one’s favorite foods more appealing. When you do need to keep a mealtime brief, be sure to plan simple meals or finger foods that can be taken on the go if necessary.