Meals can be challenging for someone with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, not to mention their caregivers. As the disease progresses, it can become difficult for the person to consume enough calories to maintain a healthy weight. But there are ways to encourage healthy eating. Eventually, toward the end of life, it’s natural for humans, and all animals, to lose the desire for food.
As his Alzheimer’s progressed, my husband, had trouble recognizing food items. Morris forgot how to hold a sandwich, and I’d have to place it in his hand. He forgot how to cut his food, so I served it to him already cut into small pieces.
Once when I handed him a sandwich to eat, he asked what it was. I replied, “Chicken salad.” He threw the sandwich across the table and exclaimed, “This chicken is dead!” It was hilarious, and shocking.
But there are ways to encourage your loved one to enjoy food and get good nutrition throughout most of the course of the illness.
Here are some suggestions:
- Seniors and elders with health issues tend to be hungriest in the morning and eat less as the day progresses. Make a healthy breakfast packed with protein, healthy fat, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Eggs, anywhere you like them, served with avocado, toast, beans, and greens provides everything needed to establish the beginning of a good day. The same goes for caregivers! You need the strength and energy to get through the day, so start it off with a nutrient- rich breakfast.
- Setting the table–Put as little on the table as possible in order to not confuse the patient or detract for their ability to clearly see what is in front of them. Use a colorful plate mat, and a white plate so the food stands out. And serve colorful foods, which are higher in antioxidants and vitamins and minerals. Think sweet potatoes, winter squash, corn, beets, greens, etc. Root veggies can be pureed and served in a mash, which is easier to chew and swallow.
- Make sure the environment is clean and pleasing. Put on some favorite music. It can be stimulating or soothing, depending on the mood.
- Has the patient kept up with their dental appointments? My mother was always fastidious about dental care, visiting her dentist several times a year for cleanings. But at the end of her life, she began to lose teeth, most likely from poor nutrition. Observe your loved one and make sure there are no signs of pain, grimacing, trouble chewing, etc.
- Sometimes, a person will not remember that they have eaten just a little while before saying, “When is lunch (or dinner)?” Or, “I’m hungry. When are we going to eat?” Leave their plate on the table longer as a visual reminder. You might have to hide food, if they have the tendency to overeat. And if you want to make sure they, as well as you, are eating the best diet possible, refrain from buying cookies, sweets, chips, and crackers, that are filled with empty calories and hydrogenated fats.
- Provide a meal companion for your loved one. If you can’t eat with him/her, ask a friend to share a meal. Or, if he/she is still able to eat in a restaurant, have a friend make a weekly lunch date and bring them to a quiet restaurant that serves their favorite food.
- The taste for sweet things is the last one to go. If your loved one doesn’t have any appetite, it’s almost guaranteed that they will enjoy ice cream. There are lots of options on the market to choose from ranging from traditional ice cream to frozen desserts made with cashew cream, coconut cream and soy milk.
- Make sure the temperature of the food isn’t too hot or too cold, and that the patient is seated comfortably in a room that is neither too hot or cold.
Dysphagia is any problem with swallowing. This was a major issue for my dear mother, who, at the end, couldn’t eat without the food going into her lungs instead of her stomach. In determining the extent of dysphasia, the patient does a swallow test drinking liquid of various consistency and thickness.
Food and drink categories
- Nectar thick, he consistency of nectar, quickly runs off a spoon
- Honey thick, the consistency of honey, slowly drips off a spoon
- Pudding thick, the consistency of pudding, plops off a spoon
My mom had to drink water that was thickened, which tasted disgusting. As a result, she often refused to drink and once became dehydrated to the point where she was hospitalized.
If your patient is put on a dysphagia diet, experiment and find ways to keep him or her hydrated. Puree their favorite foods, make shakes that are delicious and nutritious. You can puree just about anything and make it taste good with herbs, tomato sauce, etc. Please don’t add salt. Yogurt and puddings are another good option. Read the labels and try to avoid added sugars. Especially watch out for high sugar content in flavored yogurt.
If your loved one doesn’t want to eat, accept it as the course of the illness. But if they are still walking and reasonably active, rule out contra-indications of newly administered drugs and illness, such as urinary tract infections.
Additionally, your patient might have a poor sense of smell, which will translate into a poor appetite. Try adding more seasoning to the food, but try to avoid salt and use herbs and spices that include antioxidants such as thyme, basil, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, and cardamom.
Laraine Pounds, R.N., an internationally recognized aromatherapist lists aromatherapy essential oils that stimulate appetite in chapter 18 of my book “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.”
Eating issues are common amongst individuals with dementia. Experiment with these suggestions and see what makes a difference. Sometimes, just sitting next to someone and offering gentle conversation helps.
Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Boulder Book Store, Tattered Cover Book Store, Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.