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.