Basic Nutrition Tips for People with Alzheimer and Dementia
Proper nutrition is a vital component for a healthy life, especially as we age.
But good nutrition is even more important for those living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as research suggests a healthy diet can increase feelings of well-being and even lead to some improvement of symptoms. By contrast, inadequate nutrition appears to be associated with accelerated cognitive decline, worsened behavioral symptoms, rapid weight loss, and poorer quality of life for these individuals.
Unfortunately, maintaining healthy eating habits can be especially difficult for those struggling to cope with the mental and physical impairments typical of dementia-related disorders.
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Why Proper Nutrition is a Challenge with Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Mealtimes are often a challenge for older people, especially if they’re experiencing cognitive decline. While caregivers frequently assume a refusal to eat is the result of a poor appetite, many factors might actually be to blame:
Inability to Recognize Food: The memory problems that accompany Alzheimer’s disease and dementia often extend to even favorite foods, reducing an individual’s ability to recognize the items put on their plate. Changes in visual and spatial abilities can also make it difficult for someone with dementia to differentiate between foods or distinguish the plate from the table.
Poor Fitting Dentures: The wrong dentures will make eating difficult, and someone suffering cognitive decline may not be able to inform their caregiver.
Medications: Many drugs – and even a change in dosage – can impact appetite.
Lack of Exercise: Sitting around all day will cause appetite to decline.
Decreased Sense of Smell or Taste: For many Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, food just doesn’t smell or taste as good as it once did.
Distractions: Too many distractions may make it difficult for someone with dementia to focus on meals.
Improving Mealtimes for Those with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
If you’re caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, incorporating even a few of these simple tips can make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone:
Distinguish Foods on the Plate: Use white plates so foods are clearly visible, as well as a contrasting place mat to ensure dishes and flatware can be distinguished from the table. Avoid patterned dishes, tablecloths and place mats.
Limit Distractions: Serve meals in a quiet environment, away from the television and other stimuli.
Keep the Table Setting Simple: Avoid centerpieces or other table items that might take focus away from the meal itself. Use only the dishes, flatware and serving pieces that are actually needed.
Check Food Temperature: People with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are sometimes unable to tell if foods are too hot to eat or drink. Be sure to test the temperature before serving anything.
Serve Only One Food at a Time: Your loved one might become overwhelmed if too many foods are served at once. Simplify by serving just one or two at a time.
Be Flexible About Food Preferences: You should always serve the foods that you know your loved one prefers. But keep in mind that many people with Alzheimer’s and dementia develop new preferences or may suddenly come to dislike their once-favorite items.
Allow Plenty of Time to Eat: Older people – especially those suffering from cognitive decline – may need an hour or more to finish a meal. Never rush your loved one, and remind them to chew or swallow frequently.
Meals Should be a Social Event: Research suggests most people eat better in the company of others, so share meals with your loved one and ensure mealtimes are enjoyable.
Respect personal, cultural and religious food preferences: For example, serve tortillas instead of bread, or avoid pork if their religious beliefs prohibit its consumption.
Keep to a Routine: If your loved one is used to eating meals at a specific time, stick to that schedule. Serve in a consistent manner and familiar locale whenever possible.
Regular Exercise Stimulates Appetite: Make an effort to incorporate simple physical activity into your loved one’s daily routine, such as going for a walk, gardening or washing dishes.
Don’t Ignore Dental Health: Regular dental appointments and properly fitting dentures can lead to big improvements in appetite.
Be Extra Vigilant After a Medication Change: Inform your loved one’s doctor if their appetite appears to decline after a change in medication or dosage.
Encourage Independence: Use easy-to-handle utensils, bendable straws, and consider serving bite-size pieces of food that can be easily picked up. Let your loved one feed themselves as much as possible, and don’t get hung up on neatness.
How to Focus on Healthy Eating
These nutritional guidelines will ensure mealtimes are healthy, as well as enjoyable:
Keep Balance and Variety in Mind: Offer an assortment of vegetables, whole grain products, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy products throughout the week.
Limit Foods High in Saturated Fats and Cholesterol: Remember, not all fats are equal. Limit the use of solid fats like butter and avoid fatty cuts of meat. Focus instead on lean proteins — think chicken and fish – as well as olive oil and other heart-healthy fats.
Cut Down on Refined Sugar: Avoid processed foods in favor of healthier options, such as fruit or juice-sweetened baked goods. But be flexible, as adding a little sugar may encourage eating in the middle or late stages of Alzheimer’s when diminished appetite can become a problem.
Limit High-Sodium Foods and Cut Back on Salt: Experiment with seasonings and herbs to increase flavor without adding salt.
Keep Your Loved One Hydrated: Provide small cups of water or other liquids throughout the day, and offer fruits, soups, smoothies and other foods with high water content.