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How To Navigate Dementia And Eating Problems

February 28th, 2023

When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, it can be a worrying time. It’s natural to wonder about how the condition will progress, and to start researching what you can do to support them, from where to find dementia care to the best foods for those living with dementia to eat. 

With this in mind, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about how dementia may change the way that your loved one eats over time, and the adjustments you can make to your cooking and approach to provide them with the best possible support for their changing needs.

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Read on to find out more about common dementia-related eating issues, and discover suitable meal ideas for those living with dementia.

Dementia And Eating Problems: What You Need To Know

Dementia and eating problems often go hand in hand; as the disease progresses, some people can lose their ability to chew and may experience swallowing difficulties, while others may become more fussy and their taste preferences may change significantly. All of this can be difficult for families to manage, but your GP will be on hand to offer advice and support if you have any concerns about your loved one’s eating habits.

Common Dementia-Related Eating Issues

Eating problems associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can include a loss of appetite, difficulties chewing or swallowing, and changes in preferences. People living with dementia may also find it extremely challenging to shop for ingredients that can make a nutritious meal, and they may struggle to follow a specific diet, such as for managing diabetes or an intolerance, which could become dangerous for their health.

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For some people diagnosed with dementia, unfamiliar foods may cause distress, and there may be times when they don’t remember they’ve already eaten, leading to overeating. Sometimes, individuals may go without food, perhaps because they don’t recognise the feeling of hunger, or because they’re unsure of how to prepare the food they want to eat. 

If you’re living with a loved one who has dementia, make sure there are snacks that they can help themselves to and that they’re left in a prominent place to remove these obstacles.

Managing Loss Of Appetite

Loss of appetite can be common in people who’ve been diagnosed with dementia; sometimes, this is a result of changes to medication, while it can also be linked to depression, which can affect people with dementia. 

One way to try to combat this is to plan meals at times when your loved one is less likely to be tired, as this may affect their appetite. If you’re worried that your loved one isn’t eating enough, speak to your GP about which supplements they’d recommend to ensure they’re still getting the right vitamins and minerals. Find out more about the recommended vitamins for elderly people.

Navigating Changing Food Preferences

As dementia affects short-term memory, your loved one may begin to revert back to habits they had many years ago. For example, they may show a preference for comforting nursery food or want to eat at different times to the rest of the family. Take their preferences on board to make mealtimes as enjoyable as possible for them.

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What’s more, someone’s taste preferences may change, perhaps for more sugary or salty foods. If they’ve suddenly developed a sweet tooth, consider replacing sugary snacks in the house with fresh fruit or other lower calorie alternatives to help manage the risk of weight gain and associated health problems.

Managing Changing Cognitive Abilities

Dementia is a degenerative condition, leading to cognitive decline over time, which can manifest itself in a variety of ways, some of which affect the way a person eats. 

Some people living with dementia will eventually lose their coordination, meaning they can’t manage cutlery anymore. You can help them to maintain their independence for longer by offering finger foods and bite-sized snacks that are already prepared so they can help themselves whenever they’re hungry. 

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Never make someone with dementia feel rushed while they’re eating, and let them be as independent as possible, even if that means buying a cup with a lid or straw to prevent spillages. 

People living with dementia may struggle to communicate when they don’t like or want something they’ve been given to eat, and they may also find it difficult to judge the temperature of food. 

As the illness progresses, you may need to remove non-food items that could be mistaken for food from your home. What’s more, some people may lose their ability to chew and may experience dysphagia (swallowing difficulties), making choking more of a risk. If this happens, you could try cutting up their food for them, and avoid any ingredients that may cause difficulty chewing or swallowing.

If pureed food is needed, bear in mind that this can be less nutritious, so you may need to add milk or a milkshake powder with extra vitamins to ensure your loved one is still getting the nutrients they need. If you’re ever concerned that your loved one is losing weight or has suddenly stopped eating, always speak to your GP.

What Are The Best Foods For People Living With Dementia To Eat?

Finding the best foods for people living with dementia to eat isn’t just about the ingredients themselves, but also their presentation. Some individuals with dementia may feel overwhelmed by large portions, for example, so keep them smaller and more manageable so they don’t appear too intimidating. 

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It’s important to make sure people living with dementia are getting a balanced diet featuring protein, carbohydrates, fibre, unsaturated fats, and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to ensure they’re getting the vitamins and minerals they need. You may also need to keep an eye on whether your loved one is drinking enough to prevent the risk of dehydration, as this could lead to further health problems.

If cutting food and handling cutlery becomes an issue as the dementia progresses, finger foods that can be eaten by hand may be a good option, such as:

  • Finger sandwiches or fingers of toast
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Slices of meatloaf
  • Potato or sweet potato wedges
  • Fish cakes
  • Samosas
  • Mini quiches
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Hummus with vegetable crudites or breadsticks
  • Toast soldiers – either dipped into a boiled egg, or spread with jam or even smashed avocado
  • Sliced banana
  • Flapjack bites
  • Melon slices
  • Grapes and berries – halved if necessary

Meal Ideas For People Living With Dementia

If you’re looking for meal ideas for people living with dementia, you may want to go with adapted versions of whatever the rest of the family’s eating to prevent the need for too much extra prep. If your loved one doesn’t eat the meal, this means you won’t have wasted too much time on extra cooking. It can also help to involve your loved one in the food preparation if it’s safe to do so, as this can help to get them more engaged with the food they’re eating.

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With this in mind, good meal ideas for people living with dementia include:

  • Porridge – a filling, nutritious breakfast option that’s relatively easy to eat and digest. Add in small pieces of fruit for extra nutrition, and a spoonful of honey if your loved one prefers a touch of sweetness
  • Fruit smoothies – these are a good way to get lots of fruit in along with filling protein such as yoghurt, although you may want to sift out pips and pulp to help reduce the risk of choking
  • Homemade soup – this can be easily blended for those with swallowing difficulties, and a creamy texture can be comforting. Serving it in a mug may be easier than managing a bowl and a spoon for some individuals
  • Rice pudding – similarly to porridge, this can be relatively easy to eat, and it’s a comforting dessert that can easily be customised with the addition of fruit or even a square of chocolate for a little treat
  • Nursery food – classic nursery food that may be familiar from childhood can be comforting for people living with dementia. This could be traditional dishes such as shepherd’s pie, hotpot, toad in the hole, and Irish stew, and desserts such as bread and butter pudding, or sponge puddings served with custard

Dementia Care At New Care Homes

Dementia care services are available at all New Care homes in the UK. It’s important for our care home staff to understand the food preferences of residents who are living with dementia, for example whether they prefer their main meal at lunchtime or in the evening, preferred cuisines, and typical snack times. This helps us to make sure we’re catering to every resident’s individual needs.

Trained chefs work in our care home restaurants, preparing a variety of menu options to cater to different tastes and dietary requirements every day. Meanwhile, all of our staff are trained in providing dementia care to our residents, with our homes featuring subtle signposting to make them easier to navigate for those living with dementia.
Find out more about our dementia care services, or contact us here to arrange a visit to look around one of our homes.