Does nothing taste “right” to your dad? Does your mom forget about eating dinner an hour after mealtime? If you’re caring for a loved one with memory loss and mealtime has become more challenging, you’re not alone. Memory loss is frequently accompanied by changes to appetite and eating habits.
Each person’s experience will be different, so it’s hard to predict what changes your loved one might experience. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the most common changes that accompany memory loss: So you can be prepared for whatever may come your way.
Understanding how eating can become a challenge for people with dementia can allow you to identify ways to make mealtime an engaging, positive, and enjoyable experience again. Here’s a look at eight common challenges associated with memory loss and eating.
1. Loss of Appetite
Think about what you enjoy eating. Do you have a favorite dish? Are there certain flavor profiles or textures that you prefer over others? It’s got to look and smell good, too, right?
Often, those things don’t change for a person with memory loss. What does change is their ability to communicate that they don’t like the food they have been given or that they’re having painful problems with their dentures that make eating uncomfortable. Other common reasons for decreased appetite among people with dementia include lack of physical activity, medication side effects, depression, and decreased sense of smell and taste.
2. Problems Using Cutlery
As memory loss progresses, your loved one may start to struggle with coordination. For example, it may become difficult for them to handle cutlery or pick up a glass. They might also have trouble getting food from the plate to their mouth.
Keep in mind your loved one may try to cover up these losses in their abilities out of embarrassment, or they may become so frustrated they give up.
3. Concentration Issues
Have you ever been to a restaurant where the music was loud and the conversations around you were distracting? Maybe the menu was really long and the lighting made it hard to read. The busy waiter kept stopping by your table, but you were still not ready to order. You eventually made a choice, but it wasn’t easy.
Now imagine that you have dementia. For someone with memory loss, a noisy environment with lots of distractions can make it difficult to concentrate on what’s in front of them.
4. Difficulty Seeing and Recognizing Food
Dementia affects the parts of the brain that handles visual information coming from the eyes, so your loved one might be experiencing difficulties with their sight and vision perception. Perhaps they don’t recognize the food you put on the plate in front of them, so they simply sit and stare.
It’s important not to assume that they don’t want to eat.
5. Challenges Making Decisions
Making decisions becomes more challenging as memory loss progresses. If you give your loved one multiple options for food, they may struggle to remember all the options you offered.
Serving too many foods at once can also be overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean you should eliminate options. Your loved one has a right to make a choice about the food they want to eat.
6. Forgetting Having Already Eaten
Your loved one might forget to eat and drink — or they might forget having just eaten a meal and ask for lunch or dinner multiple times a day. If your loved one is frequently asking or searching for food, it can be stressful.
7. Chewing and Swallowing Problems
Over time, your loved one may experience difficulties chewing and swallowing. If you notice your loved one is reluctant to eat, they might be in pain or could be worried about choking on the food they’re given. They might also struggle to communicate their challenges.
The risk of dehydration is higher among people with memory loss. Your loved one might not recognize that they’re thirsty or be unable to express their thirst. They might even fear incontinence.
Unfortunately, dehydration may worsen the symptoms of their dementia, increase the risk of urinary tract infections, and exacerbate the risk of constipation, among other things.
It’s easy to get discouraged when your loved one gets distracted while eating or when a spoon meets pursed lips. Fortunately, there are many ways family caregivers can make mealtime easier.
If you’re experiencing any of these challenges, check out our Home Dining Checklist for Memory Loss. Teepa Snow, a leading Alzheimer’s and dementia expert in the senior living industry, says that it’s up to caregivers to identify what aspects of the mealtime environment triggered a negative reaction and discover what can be done differently to address challenging situations. This Home Dining Checklist for Memory Loss will help you find tangible solutions for your loved one at mealtimes.
With a few simple changes to your approach, you can turn mealtime from a chore into a chance to not only support your loved one to eat and drink well but also to connect and grow your relationship.