My grandmother suffered with Alzheimer’s disease for many years before finally succumbing to it. One of the most painful things to experience, aside from her losing her precious memories, was seeing how simple tasks, such as eating, could become such a chore for her. As her disease progressed, eating became more and more difficult for her, which led to nutrition concerns. Poor nutrition can lead to other concerns including physical weakness, weakened immune systems as well as increased confusion or stress.
We were fortunate because while my grandmother still lived at home, we had excellent nurses who helped us understand possible underlying causes of eating problems for patients with Alzheimer’s. They also gave us tips on what to look for as well as the steps to take to ensure proper nutrition for my grandmother. Here are a few things our nurses, as well as the staff at MayoClinic.com, taught us about eating issues in Alzheimer’s patients:
1) Understand some possible underlying issues interfering with eating. According to MayoClinic.com, caregivers should understand that certain medications may cause a decrease in appetite, including those used to treat Alzheimer’s. Certain conditions, in addition to the sufferer’s Alzheimer’s symptoms, may also affect eating. These can be digestive problems, depression, constipation, diabetes or heart disease. Be sure to understand all conditions your loved one deals with.
(2) Understand that skills and senses decrease. Senses of smell and taste normally diminish with age but Alzheimer’s inhibits them even further. Early on, your loved one may simply forget a meal or lose the skills to prepare a meal. As time goes on, he may forget table manners and eat with hands, from other people’s plates, have difficulty with swallowing or even try eating things that aren’t edible. In the early stages, the caregiver can do simple things like give small reminders to eat (eg: phone calls, timer, posted notes, etc.) or prepare meals in advance then walk the sufferer through the steps of getting the food ready to eat.
3) Understand that frustration and distraction happen more easily. A common Alzheimer’s symptom is frustration or agitation. This can make it difficult to sit still to eat. Also, because distractions can steal attention away from eating, having a quiet environment for meal times without television or phone calls is best. MayoClinic.com further suggests removing unnecessary clutter from the eating area and using eating tools (plates, utencils, etc.) without patterns.
4) Understand that the mechanics of eating can be difficult. The action of chewing and swallowing are tough enough but in the later stages even getting that food up to the mouth can be hard. Using slip-proof plates or rubbery place mats that stick to the table surface can ease some frustration. Other tips include using bowls instead of plates, spoons to scoop food rather than forks, utencils with large handles and cups with bendable straws or lids to avoid spills. MayoClinic.com also suggests makings things a bit easier by cutting up food into smaller pieces or serving finger-foods.
5) Understand that too much on the plate can be overwhelming. Sometimes seeing those ‘three square meals’ piled high on the plate can seem like a daunting task to get through for Alzheimer’s patients. It can be better just to have one or two things on a small plate or bowl several times a day rather than a pile of food three times a day.
Finally, caregivers should try sneaking in a few extra doses of nutrition wherever you can. Serving iron-enriched cereals or oatmeal at breakfast or a wonderful fruit smoothie with a few dashes of flax seed or even ‘boosting’ a favorite biscuit for tea time can be enough to balance things out.
One thing we noticed was that when our grandmother had a good eating day, she was more alert, more energetic and better able to cope with her disease. It can be a lot of work but taking the time to understand the underlying causes behind your loved one’s eating issues will help make coping with his Alzheimer’s a bit easier.
Alzheimer’s: Making Mealtimes Easier, MayoClinic.com (originally published, November 24, 2009)