Improving Mealtime for Individuals with Dementia

When we recently featured the winning designs for the Stanford Center on Longevity MindDesign student design challenge, I was particularly struck by the first-place winner’s design. “EatWell” was, simply, a table setting that had been redesigned to make eating easier and more enjoyable for individuals with dementia.

Those of us who work in senior care know that problems with eating are a common issue for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. Since we can’t all go out yet and buy Sha Yao’s award-winning table setting, I thought I’d share a few facts bout eating problems associated with dementia, as well as simple tips for family caregivers.

Causes of Eating Difficulties

There are several reasons that eating can become problematic for an individual with dementia. For example, such individuals often lose the ability to be able to tell when they are either hungry or full. The senses of taste and smell may change, so once familiar and enjoyed foods are suddenly rejected.

Cognitive problems certainly play a large role. Individuals may forget how to use table utensils or forget the sequence of steps in the eating process. They may often forget whether they have eaten a meal, causing meals to be skipped or for overeating to occur. With declining cognition, motor problems also occur, and such tasks as cutting food into bite-sized portions or pouring a glass of water may be impossible to perform.

Physical problems can also affect eating behavior. Improperly fitted dentures, for example, can lead to loss of appetite or avoidant behavior at mealtimes. Certain medications can also affect an individual’s appetite or fluid intake, as can lack of exercise.

Whatever their cause, mealtime problems can lead to malnutrition or dehydration in old adults, which, in turn, increase dementia symptoms. If eating problems are suspected, family members should check to see if there have been any recent changes in weight and watch for any pattern of missed meals.

Tips for Better Eating