Juliet Holt Klinger, MA, Expert on Dementia Care

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06 March 2017

dementia dining

In our weight-obsessed society, most of us are concerned about packing on too many pounds, rather than too little. But the latter can be a real problem and a symptom of something serious for seniors. If an aging loved one has lost noticeable weight recently, please talk to your doctor about it. A range of illnesses, from cancer to endocrine disorders, might be the cause. There’s also a possibility it’s a sign of undiagnosed dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. 

Dementia can begin affecting the ability to smell as long as two years before it’s detected, changing how things taste and diminishing the desire to eat. This could lead your loved one to cut back on food before other signs of the disease appear. In fact, this study suggests peanut butter can be a predictor of dementia.  

After a dementia diagnoses, maintaining a healthy weight and good nutrition can be challenging for additional reasons. Many family caregivers have told me their loved ones forget to eat, eat too many times during the day, won’t stay long enough at the table to complete a meal, or ignore what’s on their plate. These challenges can make once-treasured family mealtime something to dread.

However, you can overcome these obstacles. Many stem from the ways the disease changes perception and physical abilities and can be addressed through simple supportive measures. In recognition of National Nutrition Month, I wanted to share with you practices our Clare Bridge dementia care program encompasses to encourage dining; they could be helpful to you at home as well:

  • Use contrasting table settings: Dementia can affect depth perception and proper visualization, making it difficult to differentiate plates and bowls from the surface they are sitting on. Use plates that contrast with the table surface or tablecloth and the food served.
  • Offer visually-differentiated food: As with table settings, it helps to serve foods that contrast in color with each other, such as chicken breast and broccoli, rather than chicken breast and corn. Or if you have light colored food items such as mashed potatoes on a white plate, use a colorful garnish such a parsley flakes to highlight the food.
  • Provide easy-to-use tableware: It may be difficult for a person with dementia to use a fork to maneuver food off a flat plate. Offering a spoon and serving food in a shallow bowl allows your loved one to scoop using its edge. If you are experiencing significant challenges with getting your loved one to use regular tableware, consider an adaptive set made just for persons living with dementia such as the EatWell set.
  • Keep table settings simple: Too many items and decorations can distract and confuse. A simple vase with a few flowers adds a graceful touch that invites people to the table without creating possible confusion. Avoid decor, such as bowls of artificial fruit that might be perceived as edible.
  • Create a pleasant ambience: Consider whether the dining area is too noisy, or overly hot or cold. Perhaps chairs are no longer comfortable or at the right height to accommodate dining. All of these could be reasons your loved one no longer wishes to sit down or stay seated for a meal. 

Watch Jaime Feaster, Brookdale sales and marketing director, demonstrate these tips on East Texas Matters

In its later stages, dementia can impair the ability to chew and swallow, but dining issues in the early and middle stages are often related to the factors I’ve listed. It’s important to understand that dementia, which is a disease of the brain, doesn’t necessarily prevent your loved one from enjoying overall good physical health through much of the journey. However, maintaining proper weight and nutrition are essential components to overall well-being. 

Here’s wishing “bon appétit” to all for your next meal!


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