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Encouraging Eating: Advice for
At-Home Dementia Caregivers


(Page 4 of 7)

View Mealtimes as Opportunities

Dementia-care experts acknowledge that mealtimes can be stressful for caregivers and care recipients alike, but say that some of the typical challenges can be overcome by viewing eating as an opportunity rather than a task to “get through.”

“Mealtimes are one of the most important temporal anchors that people with Alzheimer’s have, marking morning, mid-day, and evening each day. Unfortunately, some caregivers dread the challenge of ‘getting the person to eat,’ and as a result, the experience for everyone can become negative and confrontational,” Coppola says. “Rather than being akin to a ‘medication time,’ mealtime can be seen as opportunities for a successful experience for the person because it’s an activity that is familiar, is overlearned, and can be modified in many ways.”

Mealtimes are opportunities for people with dementia to make choices, to have their identities reinforced, and to be affirmed for past accomplishments through statements such as “Mom, you make the very best biscuits!” or “You taught me to make pie.”

“Mealtime provides a time to be with other people,” adds Coppola. “Caregivers often have busy lives, and meals bring people ‘in the moment,’ creating a time to connect with each other.” For instance, caregivers can help create a pleasant, social dining environment by talking about the food or reminiscing about family traditions and celebrations.

Experts further recommend integrating people with dementia into the entire mealtime process by encouraging them to help prepare the food, set the table, pull out the chairs, or put the dishes away. Doing so helps the care recipient experience eating in a larger social context and as part of daily activity, rather than as an isolated task. Moreover, participating in the mealtime process helps the person maintain functional skills and feelings of personal control.

“Think about the mealtime-related activities the person did in the past and modify them as needed so he or she can continue to contribute to the family. Keep your eye on the process, not the product, because it’s the activity, not the outcome, that counts,” says Cynthia Epstein, ACSW, a clinical social worker at the New York University Silberstein Aging and Dementia Research Center.

Promote Independence

Caregivers can use a variety of strategies to promote independence during mealtimes. For example, if the person lives alone, the caregiver might call and remind the person to eat a meal, write down simple step-by-step directions about how to prepare a particular meal, or organize the kitchen so that items needed for a simple meal are in view.

If the care recipient has difficulty using utensils, replace some foods with finger foods such as small sandwiches, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Simple adaptive eating tools also can help some people remain independent and maintain a sense of personal control while dining. These include items such as plates with large rims, cups with lids and wide bases, flexible straws, utensils with large or built-up handles, and non-slip placemats or suction cups to keep dishes from moving on the table. Adaptive tools that look familiar can help trigger the person’s memory for eating.

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