Proper eating and nutrition are important for everyone, but eating well presents particular challenges for people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Individuals experiencing cognitive decline may find it increasingly difficult to keep track of mealtimes, understand healthy food choices or even how to properly use utensils. Poor nutrition for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia may also lead to worsening symptoms, behavioral problems and unhealthy weight loss.
While Alzheimer’s and dementia do not require a special diet, maintaining a well-balanced and nutritious diet can contribute to overall health and wellbeing. Here are some ways caregivers can help:
- Schedule regular and routine mealtimes. Regular and expected mealtimes may help reduce occurrences of skipped or forgotten meals. Allow ample time for mealtimes too, as increased time may be needed for proper chewing and swallowing.
- Focus mealtimes around eating and being together. Remove distractions such as televisions or digital devices. Even elaborate table decorations or excessively patterned tablecloths and plates can overwhelm and cause confusion. Mealtimes should be associated with enjoyment and social interaction.
- Keep foods simple. Serving too many dishes at once may overstimulate the senses and require having to perceive too many different tastes and smells at one time.
- Adjust to your loved one’s changing abilities. Offer the best tools you can to make eating easier such as large handled spoons or bowls instead of plates. Encourage as much independence as possible by making things easier to manage.
- Ensure a diet that is balanced with plenty of healthy vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Reduce unhealthy fats that can negatively impact heart health such as fatty meats or butter.
- Minimize salt and refined sugars. We are all aware of the need to reduce salt intake as it can lead to elevated blood pressure. It is also important to minimize consumption of processed foods which often contain high levels of hidden refined sugars which contribute many empty calories, but are lacking in important vitamins and nutrients.
- Ensure proper hydration. Adults experiencing cognitive decline may not remember to maintain proper hydration. Offering small amounts of liquids throughout the day can help minimize hydration issues.
- As cognitive decline progresses, some additional safety concerns may arise such as choking hazards. Bite-sized or finger foods can be easier to pick up and chew and, if necessary, softer foods can be introduced such as applesauce, smoothies or scrambled eggs.
If you do notice a drastic change in appetite or sharp weight loss there may be a simple reason:
- Medication related. Make sure your loved one’s doctor explains how any current medications may be affecting appetite. Also, find out if there any foods that should be avoided or reduced due to possible interactions. Some medications may affect appetite or nutrition absorption. Medications may also cause constipation, dry mouth or lethargy. Make sure the doctor fully explains these and other possible side effects with you.
- Difficulty eating. Eating may be an unpleasant experience for anyone with tooth pain, ill-fitting dentures or other dental issues. Make sure dentures fit well and introduce softer foods to minimize any chewing or swallowing discomfort that may be present.
- Lack of exercise. Increased physical activity can help stimulate appetite. Simple actions such as walking, gardening or doing housework can help your loved one stay more physically active.
- Reduced sensory perception. Your loved one may react to food with less enthusiasm as senses of smell and taste deteriorate, and once beloved foods may become less appealing.
- Depression. Loss of appetite may be a sign of depression. Discuss this with the doctor if you believe this might be the case.
As a caregiver, always remember to care for your needs as well. Ensure your own well-being by maintaining a healthy and nutritious diet of your own. You can also explore what resources are available in your community or online for Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers experiencing eating or nutrition challenges with their loved ones.