Getting proper nutrition can be a challenge for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Alzheimer’s patients may lose track of their mealtimes and skip meals or they may simply eat or drink less than they used to. People with Alzheimer’s also experience difficulties with eating as cognitive functioning declines. They may forget how to use utensils, not recognize some foods, have difficulty chewing or swallowing, find food choices confusing or lose their appetites due to medications or diminishing enjoyment of food.
It is important for Alzheimer’s patients to maintain good nutrition as it can help ease some symptoms and support better overall health. Poor nutrition can lead to increased agitation, unhealthy weight loss, weakness, lowered immunity and dehydration. Making meals healthy, easy and pleasant can help individuals with Alzheimer’s maintain good nutrition.
Incorporating a variety of foods in a diet is important to healthy eating. This means plenty of vegetables and fruits, plus whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein. Keep sugar, salt and high-fat options such as fried foods to a minimum. Be mindful of maintaining good hydration with plenty of water throughout the day.
Be sure to note if there are any particular drug side-effects or interactions that may affect eating. Some drugs cause changes in appetite, constipation or impact the absorption of nutrients. And how well some drugs work can be affected by foods or drinks.
Encourage exercise or physical activity to help stimulate appetite. Keep an eye on the patient’s weight to make sure they are not losing too much if eating continues to be a challenge.
Sometimes a decrease in food intake has more to do with discomfort than appetite. A remedy may even be as simple as adjusting ill-fitting dentures to improve comfort.
Individuals with Alzheimer’s may struggle with utensils or with handling large pieces of food. In this case, presenting finger foods like chicken nuggets or precutting foods like fruits or vegetables into small pieces makes mealtimes easier to manage. Smaller food pieces can be picked up with a large-handled spoon or with the hands and can help the individual maintain a sense of independence.
If swallowing or chewing become difficult, large meals may require too much effort. Several smaller meals in a day may be less frustrating than dealing with fewer large meals and can still deliver the same amount of nutrients. Preparing softer foods also helps alleviate swallowing difficulty.
Eating becomes much more pleasurable when mealtimes are associated with social interaction and enjoyment and not the scene of a daily struggle. Keeping mealtimes on a schedule with a regular routine helps reduce anxiety or any sense of surprise around mealtimes.
Limit all distractions and excessive decorations on the table or in the dining area which can cause confusion. Make sure the television is off and that the focus is on the meal and on social engagement. Make sure there is plenty of unrushed time for eating.
The atmosphere of a meal can have an important impact on a patient’s nutrition and hydration. A recent study has shown that the simple act of increasing social interaction during mealtimes appears to improve eating and drinking for people with dementia.
Good nutrition helps keep all of us healthy and happy. For people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, good nutrition is especially important to help maintain a quality of life for as long as possible that includes a strong body, balanced emotions and an experience of independence and enjoyment.