4 Tips to Encourage Loved Ones with Alzheimer's to Eat

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Alzheimer’s disease often wreaks havoc on a person’s life, turning it topsy-turvy and making the little things in life seem so much more difficult. Take eating, for instance. Many people with this brain condition will lose the ability to enjoy this pleasurable part of life – and, by doing so, can quickly put their health at risk by losing weight and not getting the proper nutrients.

    People who have dementia may experience difficulty eating for a variety of reasons. For instance, they may have difficulty chewing or may no longer experience the sensation of hunger. 

    If a loved one is not eating, it’s important that you as a caregiver address the situation. So what can you do? Here are some thoughts:

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    • Come up with a way to remind a person who has Alzheimer’s to eat. Sometimes all you need to do is use the power of persuasion. Here’s an interesting – and relatively simple – idea from research that was just highlighted in The Wall Street Journal: place a large fish tank with large, colorful fish in the area where the person with dementia dines. This 10-week study involved 70 people with dementia who lived in three Southern retirement homes. Their weight and food consumption was monitored throughout the study. Starting in week three of the study, the retirement home staff brought in the aquarium with the fish during mealtimes and fed the fish at the same time as the residents. The researchers found that the residents ate more of the food on their plate at this point and actually gained slightly more than two pounds during the course of the study. The researchers believe that participants calmed down while watching the fish, which allowed them to focus on eating.
    • Remove distractions. In the same vein as the previous suggestion, I’d encourage you to minimize distractions that can take the loved one’s attention away from food. For example, the nursing home where my mother lived always had the television on during dinner time. I found that Mom started paying attention to the evening news and then started thinking that she was in the middle of whatever was going on, whether it was grass fires that were being reported in West Texas or a war in another part of the world. Therefore, if you ‘re going to have the television on during mealtime when one of the diners has dementia, I’d encourage you to have some sort of calming show on – and if possible, make it a show in which the people are eating a nice meal together.
    • Determine if there’s a coordination problem. Early on, I didn’t realize how much the onset of Alzheimer’s could affect eating. For instance, spaghetti – that beloved food that so many people enjoy twirling and slurping – is in reality a very complex food to eat if you no longer have a high level of coordination. The same goes for soup. Therefore, if your loved one is having difficulty eating, you may want to try foods that are easier to eat. Try serving foods that can be eaten by just using the hands, such as chicken strips, sandwiches, grapes, carrot sticks and cookies.
    • Seek medical guidance, if necessary. When my mother started having difficulty eating, the nursing home’s physical therapist contacted us and suggested that she have a modified barium swallow test. We agreed and had the opportunity to observe Mom’s responses during the test. We could actually see on the monitor where Mom had lost ability to coordinate her swallowing reflex, thus allowing food to start entering her lungs. Knowing this, the nursing home staff was able to start her on a modified diet that helped her eat safely again.

    These are just a few tips to help caregivers deal with a loved one’s eating issues. For other tips on getting a person with Alzheimer’s disease to eat and drink, check out HealthCentral’s health expert Carol Bradley Bursack’s sharepost as well as the Alzheimer’s Society’s guide to eating and drinking.

  • Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

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    Alzheimer’s Society. (2013). Eating and drinking.

    Lukits, A. (2014). To spur appetite, invite fish for dinner. The Wall Street Journal.

Published On: January 28, 2014