5 Tips to Make Meals Easier for People with Alzheimer's
Dining can be one of the pleasures in life. However, people who have Alzheimer’s disease may really struggle with this daily task which is so important to their health. Therefore, based on my own experiences with my mother (who died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and Alzheimer’s in 2007), I’d like to suggest five ways to streamline this important activity. These tips are:
- Simplify the meal. When I was growing up, Mom had sure that our meals had all the recommended components – protein, a vegetable (or two), a starch, and a salad. Sometimes, we’d venture out to have spaghetti or – if my parents were tired – we’d bring in Chinese food. But when Mom got Alzheimer’s, that cornucopia of food choices was no longer an option. First of all, as Mom’s dementia progressed, multiple options confused her. The nursing home would fix her a plate of food (which looked very much like the tray of food I was handed when I went through the cafeteria line back during my school days). I didn’t think about how this affected Mom, but quickly found out when we brought Mom over to my home for dinner for Thanksgiving. I had resorted to my usual entertaining style of putting everything on different platters so everyone could serve themselves family-style. But having those options were overwhelming for Mom. I learned that what worked better was just fixing Mom a plate. That way, she wasn’t faced with lots of choices and could instead focus on eating the food in front of her.
- Focus on making sure the loved one drinks liquids. It’s very easy for someone with Alzheimer’s to become dehydrated since they will forget to drink their beverage. Therefore, whenever I would go to visit Mom, I would make sure that she had a glass of water close by. I also reminded her to drink because I made sure that I had a glass of water as well. She’d be looking at me when we were talking and I’d make sure I’d lift my glass in preparation for drinking it. Mom would soon follow my lead.
- Fix what the person likes and will eat. I’m all for a healthy diet, but – at least in Mom’s case – nutrition wasn’t as important as calories. She wrinkled her nose at some of the foods that were put on her dinner plate in the nursing home and wouldn’t eat them. But I knew that Mom had a huge sweet tooth, so I started making a habit of baking some cookies and bringing them with me when I visited. Her eyes would light up when I mentioned that I had brought cookies. I’d make sure that she had a glass of water to go with the cookies, so we’d basically check off three issues with that one visit – making sure she consumed some calories, keeping her hydrated, and – of course – enjoying some time together.
- Maintain a calm dining environment. Interestingly, I found that Mom at times would be extremely agitated after eating. Initially, I couldn’t figure out why. Finally, one day Mom said something about being in a war. I realized that her agitation was caused by the television news, which was on when she was dining and which at that point featured stories on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Because she couldn’t distinguish between her own reality and those news stories, Mom thought she was in the middle of a war zone. After that, I encouraged the nursing home staff to make sure that she was seated far from the television. Therefore, I’d strongly encourage that the television be turned off during meal times – or if it is on, that it’s on an uplifting program (such as old shows such as “I Love Lucy” or “The Andy Griffith Show” or shows with that same temperament).
- Relax the focus on etiquette. Watching Mom struggle with eating reminded me that this is actually a very complicated activity. Trying to balance peas on a spoon or curling spaghetti around a fork can be difficult for anyone, much less someone who has a damaged brain due to dementia. Therefore, I’d encourage caregivers not to get too wrapped up if the loved one with Alzheimer’s resorts to using fingers when eating or if food is falling into his/her lap. Remember that nutrition and calories are the important part of eating at this stage, as opposed to proper table manners.
These tips can help caregivers make dining easier for people with Alzheimer’s. I hope other caregivers will share their suggestions in the comments section below.