How To Make Feeding Those with Dementia Easier
Many people with dementia lose some ability to feed themselves, creating a significant challenge for family caregivers, as well as feelings of anxiety. People with dementia often experience unintentional weight loss and therefore can be at risk of malnutrition. This may be due to reduced appetite, difficulty swallowing, forgetting and/or refusing to eat, and poor food safety practices.
Weight loss may also be attributed to increased energy expenditure (often from pacing and wandering) and changes in metabolism associated with the disease process. Often poor diet and unexplained weight loss create substantial anxiety for family caregivers.
Caregivers Offer “Real Life” Experience And Advice
Recently, researchers at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, conducted interviews with family caregivers of people with dementia, in order to understand this environment, and to learn the strategies these family caregivers have developed for providing nutrition to their loved ones.
When it came to meal times, the challenges experienced by family caregivers were numerous and varied, with cognitive issues and functional decline commented on most frequently, in addition to instances of depression.
Rapid weight loss and noticeable wasting was a source of considerable anxiety for most family caregivers. A feeling of failure, helplessness and a significant source of emotional stress often accompanied this anxiety. One caregiver said “I just went to pieces when she lost weight. I still go to pieces . . . she was so skinny and bony and unhappy” (62-year-old female family caregiver).
Tips To Make Mealtime Easier
Interview participants had some concrete tips for family caregivers:
- Utilize simple strategies that are effective in preventing weight loss e.g. using loved foods to maintain intake.
- Keep food simple, tasty, traditional, culturally appropriate, attuned to individual preferences.
- Reduce choice and decision-making at mealtimes. Decision-making can often cause confusion and agitation.
- Avoid battles over food. Diffuse agitation and try again later.
- Offer regular drinks. Thirst is often not functionally adequate to ensure hydration.
- Assistance and supervision with eating is important and often required.
- De-clutter mealtimes to make eating easy.
- Make an event of mealtimes. Build a routine (e.g. music, settings, socialization, special plates).
Caregivers Also Need Support
The family caregivers in this study discussed receiving very little or no support, education, or resources from health professionals in terms of how to deal with the nutritional issues that arise in people with dementia. It is recommended that a short discussion with a family doctor could result in you receiving a referral to an experienced dietitian who can provide advice that is tailored to individual needs. Or discuss difficulties with others in a similar situation who may have developed strategies to overcome the same difficulties.
By Sarah Jansen, MS (https://www.dementia.org/caregiver-feeding-dementia-alzheimers-patient)
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