Eating and swallowing difficulties are common challenges for people living with dementia. These issues can significantly impact nutrition, leading to weight loss, dehydration, and a decline in overall health. Addressing these difficulties is crucial in providing comprehensive memory care for people living in care facilities as well as at home, Here are some practical tips and strategies to help manage these challenges and ensure proper nutrition for those with dementia.

Understanding eating and swallowing difficulties

People with dementia may experience a range of eating and swallowing difficulties that can significantly impact their nutrition and overall health. One common issue is difficulty recognising food. Due to memory impairment, people with dementia may struggle to identify food items, which can lead to confusion and reluctance to eat. This lack of recognition can be distressing for both the person and their caregivers.

Reduced appetite is another challenge faced by those with dementia. Changes in the brain associated with the disease can alter hunger signals, leading to decreased interest in food and unintentional weight loss. This reduction in appetite can be exacerbated by the person’s inability to recognise food, making it even more difficult to maintain proper nutrition.

Chewing problems are also prevalent. Dental issues, such as missing teeth or poorly fitting dentures, can make chewing painful or ineffective. Dementia can affect muscle coordination, making it hard for people to chew food thoroughly. These difficulties can lead to a preference for soft foods, which might not always provide balanced nutrition.

Swallowing difficulties, known as dysphagia, are another significant concern. Neurological changes caused by dementia can impact the muscles involved in swallowing, making it difficult to swallow food and liquids safely. This can increase the risk of choking and aspiration, where food or liquid enters the lungs, potentially leading to pneumonia or other serious complications.

Distractibility during meals is another common problem. The cognitive impairment associated with the disease can make it difficult for people to stay focused on eating. They may become easily distracted by their environment, other people, or even their own thoughts, leading to prolonged meal times and insufficient food intake.

At Livewell, we understand that addressing these eating and swallowing difficulties requires a compassionate and individualised approach. Alongside working with Registered Nutritionists, we understand and accommodate these challenges by ensuring our residents with dementia receive the nutrition they need to maintain their health and well-being.

Tips and strategies for managing eating and swallowing difficulties

Create a calm and comfortable eating environment
To help our residents living with dementia focus on eating, it’s important that we minimise distractions by turning off the TV and reducing background noise. Maintaining consistent meal times provides structure and reduces confusion while ensuring a comfortable seating arrangement—where the person is seated upright and in a supportive chair—can significantly improve their eating experience.

Serve dementia-friendly foods
Our chefs understand that offering dementia-friendly foods can make mealtime easier and more enjoyable for our residents. Finger foods, such as bite-sized fruits, vegetables, and sandwiches, are easy to handle. Providing soft-textured foods like mashed potatoes, yoghurt, scrambled eggs, and soups can aid those with chewing difficulties. Additionally, making meals visually appealing can stimulate appetite and encourage better nutrition.

Monitor and assist with eating
Close monitoring and assistance during meals can support people with dementia. Hand-over-hand assistance can guide the person’s hand to help them bring food to their mouth, while verbal cues and encouragement provide simple instructions and positive reinforcement. Using adaptive utensils, such as weighted forks and spoons or plates with raised edges, can also make eating easier and more effective.

Address swallowing difficulties (Dysphagia)
For those with swallowing difficulties, consulting a speech-language pathologist is crucial. They can assess the problem and recommend exercises or techniques to improve swallowing. Using commercial thickening agents to make liquids easier to swallow and serving softer, moistened foods like purees and smoothies can help reduce the risk of aspiration and ensure safer eating.

Ensure proper hydration
Proper hydration is essential for overall health, especially in individuals with dementia. Offering fluids regularly and encouraging small sips of water or other hydrating beverages throughout the day can prevent dehydration. Including hydration-rich foods, such as watermelon, cucumber, and broth-based soups, in the diet can also contribute to better hydration.

Address dental health
Maintaining good dental health is important to avoid pain and difficulty chewing. Regular dental check-ups can ensure the person’s teeth and gums are in good condition. Assisting with daily oral hygiene, including brushing and flossing, helps maintain oral health and can prevent issues that might complicate eating.

Adjust to the person’s preferences and abilities
Catering to the person’s tastes and preferences can make meals more enjoyable and encourage better nutrition. Personalising meals according to their likes can increase their willingness to eat. Additionally, encouraging independence by allowing them to do as much as they can on their own helps maintain their dignity and sense of autonomy during mealtimes.

Managing eating and swallowing difficulties in dementia requires a compassionate and individualised approach. By creating a supportive eating environment, serving appropriate foods, and offering assistance and encouragement, the caregivers at Livewell Estates ensure that our residents living with dementia receive the nutrition they need.