There is nothing more shocking as a caregiver to watch than your Alzhemier or dementia parent losing weight and refusing eat. Here are my top tips and ideas for strategies you can try to get some calories into their diet!
Our Mom's Dementia Food Story
We probably should have known that there was something wrong at least 6 months before Mom had her first fall and hospitalization.
She was living alone, losing weight like crazy and wasn't really able to find a way to consistently feed herself. She had tried shopping for foods she liked and even getting those meals sent in the mail, but on her own, nothing really sounded good to her.
She is a tall woman, 5′ 10″ and with the 60+ pounds she has lost her clothes are hanging on her and her pants are falling down as she walks.
Since moving in with us and getting food more regularly she has gained 3 pounds… yay! But that is hardly making a dent.
For us the frustration comes when we ask what she wants to eat and the answer is always, “I am not hungry right now, I'll have something later!”… but later never comes.
So here are my top tips that we have found to help get Mom to eat!
Never Ask What She Is Hungry For
When Mom moved in I thought I would be super kind and ask her what she is hungry for… ummm nothing, EVER.
Then I went to treating her like my kids… do you want peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese… still not there yet because she would say, I will figure it out in a little bit.
Now I just make her something she will like and present it to her as a fait accompli. “Here is your sandwich Mom!”
Now, is this some kind of miracle cure where she magically eats it all, nope! But more times than not she will at least take a few bites and then give the rest to the dogs.
Related resource: Should You Get Your Alzheimers Parent A Pet?
We are lucky that as a family we eat at home together every night (sometimes in shifts, but generally someone is around to eat dinner at the table with Mom).
But during the day, it is hit or miss. Sometimes she is out here with me and we can chit chat while she eats her lunch on the recliner, but sometimes she is in her room and that can mean trouble!
I guess no one really likes eating all alone and popping in a snack and leaving generally means she will give to the dogs or hide it somewhere for later (I am seriously starting to hate typing the word later, I hear it so often!)
Sometimes all it takes to get her to eat is to sit with her for a few minutes!
Alright now we are getting to the mechanics of dementia. Sometimes we forget that motor skills decrease with time!
I have seen more than one caregiver say that their loved one stopped eating, only to figure out that the fork had become too hard to manage and switching to a spoon jump started the eating again.
Or even switching to easy hand held food like hamburgers or fried chicken could make a difference in consumption.
No one likes to admit they can't do something and I think sometimes our loved ones stop eating instead of admitting that they can't manage silverware anymore!
Use A Red Plate
Okay, this is a weird one, but hear me out… putting Mom's food on a red plate has worked to increase her consumption!
But why? Why does a red plate help?
First off, there is a theory that having a dark colored plate makes more contrast for many light colored foods. Here is an interesting article about red plates for elderly people… seems to kinda sorta support the red plate theory.
The second thing I have heard is red as a color helps stimulate hunger in all people (so does yellow according to the this piece about how red and yellow increase hunger).
I put this one on the “doesn't hurt to try list”!
Shallow Bowl Instead of a Plate
I was watching Mom chase Brussels Sprouts around her plate the other day and I thought, why aren't we using a shallow bowl for her instead?
As I was looking these up I saw LOADS of cute patterned bowls I thought about recommending, but then I thought about how hard it would be to see food in the mix of patterns and colors. So keep it simple for them!
Make Eating Easier
Here is another thing that might not come to mind…some food is harder to eat than other food!
For example, we have “spaghetti night” every Monday. Mom has commented a few times that it is hard to eat (she has to roll it or cut it). Our 11 year old son struggles too … with spaghetti noodles trailing from his mouth as he shoves a large bite in!
But what if we simply changed the skinny, long noodles for penne or rigatoni? Both of those are so much easier to eat than having to twirl spaghetti noodles!
You can do this with lots of foods… english muffins instead of scones that break in a million pieces. Flat sausages that are easier to cut than the round rolly ones.
Remember that eating may be harder than it was and make any concessions that you can!
Cut Up Their Food
Here is one that you have to do on the sly, don't reach over at the table and start hacking up their food in front of everyone!
If a fork is hard to use, image how hard managing a fork in one hand and knife in the other one would be?
Instead of slapping a big ole steak or porkchop on a plate, serve it up already cut into bite sized pieces.
You can do everyone's if your loved one objects to being treated like a baby!
Easy To Eat Food
Okay, now let's talk about food that is easy to eat! Think about when you are sick or in the hospital and what they serve that is super easy to get down…
- Cream soups
- Diced fruit with whipped cream
- Oatmeal with fruit
- Scrambled eggs
- Fruit smoothies
- Smooth peanut butter on baby cookies
- Nutella … hazelnut spread on anything is super high calorie
Any of these will go down easy and add calories to their diet!
Meal Replacement Shakes
When Mom was in the hospital she could have as many Ensures as she wanted (Ensure is a meal replacement shake that is flavored to be yummy… Mom's favorites are dark chocolate and butter pecan).
But when she got home I completely forgot about them until I went into Walgreen's to pick up her pills one time and BAM… how could I have missed this high calorie, low effort way to get calories into the woman!
This one was a no brainer for us! We give Mom her thyroid medicine first thing in the morning and then an hour later comes the next round of pills with a yummy shake to wash them down! Whoo whoo!
If your Mom doesn't like Ensure, keep trying different kinds. There are Carnation Instant Breakfasts and even ones for kids that might appeal because they have more sugar in them.
You can even make fruit smoothies and add protein, yogurt, or ice cream to increase calories!
When researching this post I was struck by how many people said their loved ones wouldn't drink the shakes.
Well, fancy them up!
If they aren't interested in having a plastic bottle of “gunk” then tart those babies up by making them into a milkshake or hot chocolate. Get the strawberry kind and put in their fruit smoothie.
I KNOW, early on it is hard to fathom deliberately lying to your Mom or Dad, but honestly, you need to do what you can to help them get nutrition!
Drinking From A Straw
Speaking of drinking, make sure to offer them a straw with that shake! Early on in the dementia process, drinking from a straw is easier than managing depth perception from hand to mouth.
That said, in late stage Alzheimers please be careful of straws, the National Institute on Aging recommends spooning liquids into their mouths to avoid swallowing problems.
What If They Will Only Eat Sweets?
Okay, up until now we have stayed on the healthy side of the tracks, but what if your loved one will only eat sweets?
According to Alzheimers.net, “Because taste buds are diminished as people age, people with dementia opt for heavy foods or foods with a lot of flavor, like sugary sweets.”
I swear, Mom will eat three bites of the lovely fish dinner my husband cooks, but be scrounging around an hour later asking if we have any cookies or chocolate to eat….grrrr.
But calories are calories so if your Mom is grossly underweight like ours is, give the woman a cookie (see if she will have a wee glass of milk to go with it!)
There are some schools of thought to put sugar or honey on every food you give them to add a “flavor” their tastebuds can still recognize.
We are not to this point yet, but believe me, I will be “sugaring” her food if it comes down to getting her to eat!
Getting Your Alzheimer or Dementia Mom To Eat Wrapup
Okay, let's just say this once… I am not a registered nutritionist, nor am I qualified to give medical advice… but I do have that daily struggle with getting Mom to eat and found some things that seem to work for us!
As with everything, these tips and ideas work best when I am in a good, patient place (not always easy but I try!)
If you have any good tips, let me know… we are all at different stages and things that work now may not work next week or even tomorrow!