People with dementia face a number of everyday challenges. Often these challenges become more noticeable as time goes on, so it’s important to have strategies in place that can help you and your loved one through the potential problems that can arise. One such change is the way that food and drink is consumed.
Keeping ourselves well-fed and well-hydrated are important determinants to our overall health so when people with dementia begin to deal with issues relating to their memory and concentration, achieving a proper daily nutritional level and staying hydrated becomes difficult. At Better Healthcare, our carers and nurses work with clients living with dementia. We see the challenges that dementia can bring about on a daily basis – but it also means that we know a lot about how to practically tackle these challenges and ensure our clients stay healthy.
Before we share some practical tips to help overcome these problems, let’s walk through why this happens and outline some of the more common challenges that people with dementia face when it comes to food and drink.
Why changes in eating and drinking occur
There are a number of reasons why there are changes in the eating and drinking habits of people with dementia. Changes to memory and concentration are well-documented symptoms of living with dementia, but there may also be changes to coordination, planning abilities and the senses.
These changes tend to cause the following problems for people with dementia when it comes to food and drink:
- Communication problems (such as being unable to tell you that they don’t like particular food)
- Difficulties with physical activities (such as cooking)
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Chewing and swallowing difficulties
- Depression (often associated with a loss of appetite)
It’s important to note, however, that not all of the above reasons consist of just one problem and one solution. There are many more reasons within these general categories and this can make it very challenging and tiring to ensure that a loved one living with dementia is well-fed and well-hydrated.
Tips for common problems with eating and drinking
With that in mind, let’s walk through each of the common problems in the above categories and offer our tips and solutions to overcoming these challenges:
As people with dementia may have problems communicating, it can be difficult to judge if someone is hungry or thirsty without a verbal cue or a clear sign from them. Conversely, it may also be the case that you offer food and drink to a person with dementia that goes untouched. If the person has no interest in the food or drink, it may be because they don’t like what you’ve given them, they don’t like the environment, they are feeling rushed, they may be in pain, or they’re not hungry/thirsty.
Tips and solutions for overcoming communication problems:
- Observe the person’s behaviour, body language and demeanour. This is particularly helpful to do if the person is non-verbal. If they look agitated, wait a while before offering them anything.
- Show the person pictures and look for any indication that they may want something. If it’s to offer the person a snack, such as a biscuit, you could always leave a tray of various biscuits out; or even a fruit bowl with different fruits. If the person is non-verbal, it could be as simple as observing which of the choices grabs their attention the most.
- Buy supplement drinks. If you’re concerned that your relative isn’t eating enough, buy some nutritional drinks that can provide your loved one with protein, calories, vitamins, minerals and other things they may be missing as a result of their lack of appetite.
Difficulties with physical activities
Being able to move around freely or exercise can be challenging for people with dementia. People with dementia will gradually struggle to remember how to prepare and make food, meaning that this task will eventually be taken over by you or another loved one. Additionally, people with dementia may not be very physically active which can reduce their appetite.
Tips and solutions for overcoming difficulties with physical activities:
- Encourage exercise. While this may be difficult, it’s a good idea to encourage your loved one to be physically active. This doesn’t necessarily mean an intense aerobics class – it can be as simple as going for a walk with them or encouraging them to move.
- Buy a ‘shut off’ device for your gas cookers or hobs. People living with dementia and their loved ones can be worried about gas in their homes – and the potential that they may mistakenly leave on a hob or an oven. You can buy special ‘shut off’ devices that can automatically turn off the gas supply – or even a lockable cooker valve that friends and family can adjust when they enter or leave the person’s home.
- Hire a carer. If you are finding it difficult to encourage the person to be physically active or don’t have time to cook meals, then consider hiring a carer. They can help with cooking and encouraging your loved one to stay mobile. This can be a helpful thing to do in the early stages of dementia to help familiarise the carer with the person living with dementia – even if they don’t need to rely on them for much at this stage. Better Healthcare provides such carers.
Fatigue or tiredness
If your loved one shows little interest in eating or they suddenly give up on eating or drinking part of the way through doing so, then they could be either tired or fatigued. This can be for a number of reasons – such as not getting enough sleep, being depressed or because of medication.
Tips and solutions for overcoming fatigue or tiredness:
- Try and serve meals at regular intervals. If you’re noticing that your loved one is feeling tired or fatigued at a particular time, then try and build an eating routine around this behaviour so that they eat or drink when they are at their most alert.
- Consult with your GP. If you think medication is causing this disruption in your loved one’s eating behaviours, then consult your GP.
- Reduce portion sizes. If your loved one is struggling to get through a whole meal, try and reduce the sizes of the portions that you give them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to eat less – instead, they could have smaller portions more frequently.
Chewing and swallowing difficulties
You may not notice that your loved one is struggling to chew or swallow their food and that they are keeping the food in their mouths instead. They may even cough a lot or choke when they eat or drink.
Tips and solutions for overcoming chewing and swallowing difficulties:
- Change the type of food you’re serving. Smoother, softer foods can help with this problem – such as scrambled eggs. If this doesn’t help, try pureeing foods.
- Provide verbal reminders to chew and swallow. This can help to remind the person to chew and swallow the food in their mouths.
- Assist the person with eating. You could try to use safe, slow feeding techniques to help the person eat their food.
While the concern usually centres on someone eating too little or losing their appetite, there are also instances where people with dementia can overeat. This could be as simple as the person having always loved to eat and finding comfort in this – but this is often because of forgetfulness and can also lead to health complications and stressful situations. It can also be because of a particular type of dementia called behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia which causes alterations in behaviour, complex thinking and personality.
Tips and solutions for overcoming over-eating:
- Reduce portion sizes. By reducing the portion sizes, but producing the same amount of food, you can be prepared and ready for when that person comes to find more food. You can give them one half first, and then one half later.
- Use lots of salads and vegetables. This encourages the person to eat and be filled up with healthier foods while avoiding excessively high amounts of calories, carbs, salt and fats found in other food types.
- Serve the person a drink instead. If they are craving food, then you could offer them a substantial drink such as a fruit smoothie, milkshake or a hot chocolate.
This is a rather common reason behind a sudden loss of appetite in a person with dementia due to the two conditions being interlinked. If you suspect that your loved one is living with dementia and depression, then you should try and consult your GP about what to do.
Although we encourage people to speak to their GP about their depression themselves, a person with dementia may not be able to effectively communicate their discontent or persistent low mood to you or a professional. If that’s the case, your GP will be able to advise you on what to do and help your loved one receive the medication or therapy that can help alleviate the problem.
We support people with dementia
Better Healthcare provides carers that support people living with dementia by performing everyday tasks – such as cleaning, shopping, supervising medication, personal care and cooking.
Our specialist carers provide high quality, bespoke healthcare at home for people living with dementia to suit their individual needs – whether that involves permanent live-in care or just daily house visits.
We are well-suited to working with clients who have irregular eating or drinking habits, and we can employ a number of strategies to help overcome this challenge and allow people with dementia to stay as healthy as they can be.
To find out more about how we can support your loved one, simply call us on 0800 668 1234 or contact your local Better Healthcare Services office today.
If you found this helpful, you might also like:
- The link between dementia and depression
- Why people with chronic illness have a higher risk of depression
- Identifying signs that your loved one may be depressed
- How to support a loved one with mental health
This post is not health advice and should not replace professional advice tailored to your specific circumstances. It is intended to provide information of general interest about current healthcare issues.