Making Meals Manageable For Those With Alzheimer’s

Most of us would judge a meal based on how good it tastes, but for those with Alzheimer’s disease —and their caregivers —it’s not that simple.  Taste is important, of course, but there are a lot of other factors that contribute to a successful mealtime.

National Institute on Aging (NIH) statistics estimate that more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s.  While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s at this time, there are some techniques that can make life a little easier — and enjoyable — for both the “patients” and those that care for them.  And mealtime is key in many ways.

Family Caregiving

With baby boomers and seniors living longer these days, you probably know someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia — or someone who cares for a loved one with the disease.  While more and more assisted living and memory care communities are cropping up, there are still a large number of people with Alzheimer’s who remain at home, usually cared for by a family member — often with the help of a visiting home health aide.

If this sounds familiar, you aren’t alone.  Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is at once a rewarding and challenging task.  You’ve probably already figured out that routine is an important element in the care of someone with dementia. And that includes mealtime.

You’ll often hear reference to the “activities of daily living” or ADLs.  These include everything from bathing to dressing and the minutia in between.  Buttoning your shirt, combing your hair, brushing your teeth, going to the bathroom and getting ready for bed are among these common activities.

And of course, eating.  It may not all start with food, but meals and snacks often play an important role in making the day a good one.  Or not so good.

Food For Thought

As most dieters know, food is often as much about emotions as it is about taste or nutrition. It can provide comfort — or it can trigger a full-blown meltdown.

Long-term care facilities have the benefit of many caregivers around to provide help and maintain the schedule and routine.  But as any family member or home-based caregiver will tell you, caretaking at home is different.  Everyday life gets in the way and routine is easily disrupted.

While it’s not feasible to eliminate or prevent these disruptions entirely, you may find that sticking to even a loose routine as much as possible will likely lead to a greater chance of success.  And better days.

Tips For Manageable Mealtimes

Try to serve meals at approximately the same time each day.

While those with Alzheimer’s or dementia often lose the sense of time, they can certainly still feel hungry or bored.  They may not be able to tell you it’s 12:00 noon — and time for lunch.  But routine can be a comfort to those with dementia, reducing their level of anxiety by providing familiarity.

Offer simple choices.

Too many options can overwhelm people with Alzheimer’s — especially those in the mid to later stages of the disease.  But in early stages, it’s frustrating to be treated like a child.  The key is to offer easy choices.  Do they want milk or coffee?  Ice cream or a cookie?  This allows them to have at least a little control over a life that’s robbed them of most decision-making.  Note – this does not mean asking them to make numerous choices throughout the entire meal, which could easily become an overwhelming task and ultimately backfire.

Serve finger foods.

In addition to the memory-loss typically associated with Alzheimer’s, motor skills and simple tasks can become more difficult.  And consequently, any obstacles associated with eating are bound to lead to mealtime disaster.  The solution?  Prepare foods that are easy to eat.  Finger foods or other items that can easily be picked up are good.  Sandwiches or chicken fingers instead of meats that need cutting.  French fries or chips rather than scalloped potatoes.  Cut-up fruits and veggies in place of those that need to be balanced on a fork or spoon.

Make mealtimes calm — and pleasant.

Try to cut down on potential distractions by reducing mealtime chaos when possible. Turn off the TV.  Don’t let dogs beg for table food or the kids run around.  Put away cell phones and let answering machines pick up the landline if you have one.

Don’t rush them.

Encouraging loved ones to take their time eating not only leads to a more relaxed meal, but reduces the chance of choking — a common occurrence among Alzheimer’s patients.

Offer healthy foods.

People with Alzheimer’s often have little interest in food.  And that can lead to them eating less and less as their disease progresses.  Offer vegetables, fruits high in vitamin C and foods rich in calcium.  If all else fails, offer a power bar or a protein shake.  But don’t force them to eat.  And remember you’re a loved one — not their parent or warden.  Memory loss doesn’t erase their taste buds entirely.  Sometimes they just need the pleasure of a donut, slice of pizza or dessert, just like the rest of us!

Set the table for practicality – not entertaining.

Finger foods don’t need utensils, so set the table with only the ones they’ll actually need.  A full setting of multiple spoons and forks is unnecessary — and confusing.  Remove centerpieces.  Be sure to place drinks within easy reach to avoid spills.  And hot drinks?  Check the temperature before serving!

One “course” at a time.

While you certainly won’t be making a 6-course meal, consider serving foods a little at a time.  This way, they aren’t confronted with an entrée, salad plate, soup bowl and dessert all at once.  Food is easier to identify and handle a little at a time.  Again, remember that their appetite is likely not what it used to be.  If they’re uninterested in something, move on to the next.

Share the meal.

Eating alone can feel isolating — especially to someone one with dementia who may already feel confused or depressed.  So share the meal.  Eat together and enjoy each other’s company.  If they can still carry on a conversation, chat.  Keep in mind, however, that a barrage of questions (from you) can be both stressful and confusing.  And this isn’t the time to challenge their comments or memories.  Telling them they’re wrong or that something didn’t happen the way they remember it, will only cause stress, frustration and maybe even anger.  Definitely not the recipe for a successful meal.

With a little thought and preparation, you can turn meals into a pleasant time with a loved one — something to look forward to.  Stick to your basic routine, allowing for adjustments when necessary.  And remember to keep it simple, tasty and easy to eat. Bon appetit.

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