Mealtime Tips

Mealtime TiPS FINALweb_213Here are six great tips you can use to help the person enjoy their mealtimes with less stress and better communication.

1. Use encouraging, not negative words. Risa, caregiver to her mother, recently told me: “I have no trouble getting my mother to eat, but when my sister is with her, she’s always complaining that mom won’t eat. My sister shouts at her, saying: ‘Sit down, you must eat!’ Needless to say, that doesn’t go over big with our mom. When I’m with her, I say: ‘Look at this delicious food I made especially for you’, and she readily eats.“

2. Speak slowly, use simple directions, and wait longer than you think should be necessary for a response. It can be hard for us to imagine, but it really does takes persons with dementia more time to understand and to respond. Tip: Be careful that your tone doesn’t sound condescending, as this can cause the person to negatively react! Keep your voice relaxed and friendly. If the person isn’t eating, try giving simple instructions, like “Mom, pick up your spoon.” Picking up your own spoon can also help get them started.

3. Use pointing, light touch, or an occasional tap on the table to orient the person. The time came when my mother just sat at the table and didn’t eat. I soon learned what I did not think was possible, that dementia can cause a person to forget the steps involved in eating a meal.

– At first, just picking up my utensil was enough of a cue for her to remember.

– Other times, I would point at her fork or gently tap on the table next to her utensils to cue her what to do.

– In late stage, sometimes I would put the fork or spoon in her hand and gently (that is the key word here) move her hand towards her mouth. Then her long term memory took over and she began to eat on her own. This won’t work in every situation, but it may in yours, so it’s worth a try.

4. Always tell the person what you’re serving. During dinner at my mother’s assisted living residence, a plate with a large, unappealing scoop of something brown was placed in front of her. She looked up at the aide and said: “What’s that”? The aide did not know either! Needless to say, my mother refused to eat it. The takeaway here is to make sure that either the person serving or you knows what is on the plate.

5. Move slowly and calmly. Rushing a person with dementia is a known trigger that causes agitation. Do your best to slow down and you’ll see what a difference it makes.

6. Keep it peaceful. For example, playing music can help create a pleasing and calming environment, but pay special attention to the volume. Make sure the volume is on low so the sounds do not create distraction or make conversation difficult. (Even Tony Bennett, when played too loud, can cause agitation.)

For helpful tips on food portions and utensils, see our section on Better Mealtimes.

I'm an interior designer, gerontologist, author, blogger, and most importantly, a former caregiver to my mother, Arlene, who had Alzheimer's disease.
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8 Responses to Mealtime Tips

  1. JBB says:

    My wife was not eating on her own so I have been feeding her, which I know she didn’t like. I tried a few of your suggestions and I found that putting a spoon (easier for her to use/less spilling) into her hand and just starting the motion of the spoon towards her mouth (just a few inches) really helped. Now she eats on her own. Every now and then, I help her get started again. Thank you for your helpful advice.

  2. Velma says:

    Mealtimes were very stressful for us. My husband was forgetting how to use utensils and he began eating with his hands. That was distressful for me at first, but then I learned that certain foods were easier eaten by hand than others like small sandwiches, chicken fingers, fish sticks, and slightly steamed veggies (if they are too soft they fall apart and if too hard they are hard to chew).

  3. Todd says:

    I think respect for the person is so important. I was visiting a friend in assisted living and the aide served my friend hot tea and automatically put sugar in it. My friend turned to me and said: “Can you imagine? She didn’t even ask me if I wanted it.” So often we just do for the person instead of taking the time to ask and wait for a response.

  4. Evan says:

    Mom’s appetite changed as she aged and the large portions that were served upset her. If we were dining out I would tell her that she could take half home (we would remove the 1/2 immediately and place in a take out box) and this actually calmed her down. We also discussed how she could have it for another meal. Mom like that.. she was very thrifty! 😉

  5. Betty says:

    I have found that for my father, it is so important to simplify things at dinnertime. Like he can’t eat more than one thing on his plate or he gets too confused. So we now serve him his salad separately…never on the same plate!

  6. Nina says:

    There are so many different challenges when you are dealing with a loved one with dementia. Mom was giving us a hard time at meal time until I sat down to “gently” talk to her. I let her know that I was there to help her and that she could trust me. How can I help you enjoy your meal better, Mom? She looked at me and said.. “I need an apron.” I don’t want to soil my dress. Who knew!! 😉 Fashion and keep oneself looking good is still important at any age.

  7. Clarissa says:

    I found and still find it “critically important” to listen to and respect our Elders. Many of their complaints are founded. They may be different then ours but it is so important not to make them feel “less then”

  8. Dianne says:

    My mother also would get upset when she was served large servings.The other day we were out at a restaurant and they served large portions. She looked at me and said: “Am I supposed to eat all that?” She wouldn’t touch her plate until I took half of it off. Somehow she was overwhelmed, thinking she had to eat it all. We always now serve her small portions.

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