Food for Thought: Nutrition for People Living With Dementia

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Two years ago, Anna’s 84-year old mother was diagnosed with an Alzheimer's-type dementia. As the disease progressed, Anna was increasingly finding spoiled food in her mother's refrigerator. Now, though she claims she is eating just fine, Anna's mother cannot seem to recall what she's most recently eaten. Anna is concerned that her mother's nutrition is suffering. Knowing that adequate fluid intake and a balanced diet are essential to helping her mother stay as healthy as possible, Anna decides to research nutritional tips for people living with dementia. Though she's already busy trying to balance the needs of her mom with those of her family and a part-time job, Anna is intent on finding simple tips that are easy to implement so she can help ensure that her mother eats and drinks enough to provide the energy, vitamins, and nutrients she needs. Poor nourishment is a serious risk for people like Anna's mother. A person living with dementia may completely forget to eat a meal, or eat a second time, unaware that they just finished a meal. They may prefer fewer nutritionally-rich foods, opting instead for empty-calorie sweet treats and beverages instead. If they are used to preparing their own meals, doing so becomes increasingly inconsistent (leaving out ingredients, for example, or parts of a meal). They may also find it difficult to make grocery shopping selections. Here are some simple guidelines that family caregivers can use to help ensure that individuals like Anna’s mother receive sufficiently healthy nutrition and hydration to best sustain their bodies and minds.

1. Watch for Changing Food Preferences. As dementia progresses, family caregivers may find that the food and drink preferences of the person with dementia are changing. For instance, an individual who used to love braised kale as a side dish to dinner may now be turned off by the odd texture and taste. Try offering a wide variety of healthful foods to see what sparks the interest, and taste buds, of your loved one and work favorite foods in as a routine part of food preparation.

2. Establish Mealtime Routines. Most people, living with dementia or not, have daily mealtime routines. For example, Anna’s mother has always eaten supper as her biggest meal of the day. Since Anna was a girl, supper has been served at 6 o’clock on-the-dot and eaten at the kitchen table. Maintaining mealtime routines may help encourage people with dementia to eat consistently. Straying from these routines can add to confusion and produce anxiety, making eating time a struggle for the caregiver.

3. Make Meals Easy and Enticing  to Eat. Keep healthy finger food snacks (lunch-box-size carrots, fresh fruit, granola bars, celery spread with peanut butter, meatballs, chicken strips, cubed cheese, etc.), in sight and non-healthy treats out of sight. Use aromas to stimulate appetite. Simmer a large kettle of water with added cloves, citrus peel, or cinnamon bark on the stove. Turn on a couple vanilla-scented battery operated candles in the room to add a warm soft glow and enjoyable smell. Make a loaf of bread in a bread machine or bake a batch of oatmeal, raisin, and wheat germ cookies. Fill a pitcher with a spigot (the style often used for sun-brewed tea) with decaf ice tea or water with lemon slices to encourage the consumption of liquids.

4. Maximize Independence. With food preparation skills fading, it is essential to ensure healthy meals are available when your loved one is ready to eat. Consider ordering home-delivered meals and/or find a helper to assist with meal prep. The social interaction provided by the meal delivery person or meal preparer can make mealtime more interesting and enjoyable. Stow prepared dishes in the freezer to use when meal delivery isn't available. To keep weight loss at bay, consider adding a liquid nutritional supplement to aid in bolstering body nutrients. You might also consider using visual aids such as a red placemat and white plate, providing contrast to help define the eating space.

5. Provide Vitamin Sources and Foods. Taking in essential vitamins and minerals is important especially for older adults who lack vital nutrients. Vitamin B complex is reportedly good for cognition. Research is underway to confirm how Vitamin D may help to clear toxins from the brain. A well-balanced multivitamin along with fresh fruit such as bananas and berries, whole-grain fortified breads, and fresh vegetables, e.g. carrots and leafy greens, can reap positive results. If you have any concerns about the nutritional intake of your loved one suffering from dementia, talk to your doctor about incorporating supplements and additional minerals and supplements, like folic acid and fiber, to aid in digestion. A healthy diet can be a foundation for maintaining the health of an individual with dementia, and with the proper knowledge and routines, family caregivers, like Anna, can make their best effort in dietary management for their loved one.