When someone is dealing with dementia or another memory diagnosis, the day-to-day can get progressively harder. Eating and nutrition, which come somewhat naturally to many people, can become a challenge for someone in the later stages of dementia due to mental and physical changes in the body. Learn more about how dementia can make it harder to maintain nutrition and what you can do to assist a loved one.
From forgetting whether or not they ate to being physically unable to eat, here are some common challenges that can make it hard for those with dementia to get adequate nutrition.
When someone is dealing with a memory condition, they often lose short-term memory capability. That means they may not remember what they did earlier in the day, which can lead to over- or under-eating. For example, someone might not remember they had breakfast, so they'll eat a large brunch. Or, they may not remember that it's time to eat and skip meals. In some cases, they may only eat what they enjoy in the moment, which could turn into eating ice cream for every meal and not getting important nutrition.
Changes in taste and smell and food preferences are a natural part of the aging process. They can be more extreme for people who are dealing with dementia, though. In some cases, individuals with dementia may crave more sweet or salty food. When left to their own choices, they may eat only sweets as much as possible or over-salt food to dangerous sodium levels.
Changes in taste and smell, alongside memory issues that make it harder for people to remember to eat appropriately, can result in unvaried diets. This can lead to someone not getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals.
The same is true with touch and how food feels in the mouth. People of all ages can develop certain sensory preferences with foods, opting for smooth foods only or always wanting crunchier foods, for example. Individuals with dementia may develop these types of preferences too, sometimes to extremes. They may only want food that feels a certain way in their mouths because it's safe or comfortable, and this can lead to disordered eating if it's not managed.
In some cases, individuals may be fine with how foods taste or feel in the mouth but have a hard time getting them there. They may not have the grip strength or coordination to eat with normal utensils. In early stages of dementia, older adults may be embarrassed because they're more likely to spill, and that can lead to them declining opportunities to eat with others and enjoy the social benefits that come with doing so.
Some people develop issues with chewing and swallowing as they age, and this can be more common for those with memory disorders. That can make food harder to deal with or even be a safety issue.
Finally, in some cases, those with dementia may not be able to appropriately judge the temperature of food. That can lead to burns, which in turn can cause apprehension about eating in the future.
Caregivers, loved ones and professionals can all take steps to make mealtimes more pleasant and fulfilling for those with dementia. A few tips for doing so include: