Updated: May 4, 2022
Let's talk about food, eating, and Dementia. A person's eating habits will change as their Dementia symptoms change. In the early stages, those living with Dementia may be able to prepare, consume, and enjoy their meals as they always had. But, they may not be able to recall the foods they ate with which meal on a given day.
Middle stages of Dementia present different challenges. As symptoms progress and memory worsen, it may become difficult for the person to recall if or when they ate at all. Meals are skipped or repeated. Navigating the kitchen with all of its appliances, tools, cabinets, and drawers becomes nearly impossible. Failing memory may lead to eating utensils left on the table, unused.
At this stage, the sense of smell may become impaired, altering taste and food preferences. Favorite foods become intolerable while an uncharacteristic interest in sweet or salty foods takes their place. Complicating the process, fine motor coordination involved in chewing and swallowing may deteriorate. Behavioral changes like hoarding and hiding food as well as eating non-food items such as soap can also develop in mid-stage Dementia.
Over time, meals may become nothing more than cereal and milk. It remains important to encourage healthy eating habits, both for adequate nutrition and to maintain regularity. Still, recognize and respond to your loved one's food choices- prepare small amounts of their favorite snack foods, made available in a way that respects their independence.
Later stages of Dementia may leave a person unable to recognize food nor know what to do with it. The person in your care may lose the ability to synchronize chewing, moving food to the back of the mouth, and then swallowing. Pocketing is a related difficulty that occurs when food accumulates between the teeth and cheek.
Many methods used to help people with swallowing problems require an ability to follow and remember directions. Often the only solution is for you or other caregivers to hand-feed small amounts of soft or liquefied foods. Be sure to seek advice regarding the types of foods that work best, as well as receive instructions for safe hand-feeding methods and what to do if your loved one does gag and choke.
For caregivers, how to address feeding problems may be the first of many end-of-life decisions. The immediate goals are to provide enough calories to prevent weight loss and malnutrition and to devise ways to prevent the aspiration of food into the lungs.
Some doctors believe tube feeding is the best way to address this stage of decline. However, research shows that using feeding tubes in patients with late-stage Dementia neither prevents complications nor improves the quality of life. 1
Respect for and the preservation of your loved one's dignity figure into these decisions. While thin lines separate methods to maintain the quality of life, to save a life, and to prolong life -it is for each family of caregivers, hopefully, guided by a living will determine the appropriate path at the end of life.
1. Li, I, MD. "Feeding Tubes in Patients with Severe Dementia," American Family Physician http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0415/p1605.html, (accessed September 21, 2016). Content Contributor: Janet Yagoda Shagam, Ph.D., is a freelance medical and science writer and the author of "An Unintended Journey: A Caregiver's Guide to Dementia.", available through Amazon. Please visit our Author's page to learn more and find this title. (Content modified by K. Ogden, team member Dementia Society of America)
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