Nutrition is important for our health and well-being throughout our lives.
Sometimes our senior loved ones need a little extra help to eat the foods they need in the right quantities, whether they are aging in place or call a senior living facility home.
That may be especially true for those with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.
The Alzheimer’s Association has an initiative entitled Campaign for Quality Residential Care. As part of the three year study, they have created strategies to help those living in residential communities such as assisted living facilities and nursing homes improve their nutrition. Their work can be valuable to those advocating on behalf of aging family members living in those communities.
Many of the strategies can be adopted by family caregivers in providing for the needs of senior loved ones at home or as their advocate if they live in a facility.
Facts About Nutrition & Seniors in Residential Communities
Family caregivers worry about their senior loved ones when they are living in a care facility.
When aging affects intake, there are some facts which may help caregivers understand what is impacting their senior.
- 50% of those people in residential communities have some type of dementia or cognitive impairment
- In addition to weight loss, poor nutrition can increase behavioral symptoms and result in dehydration
- A well balanced diet with a variety of foods is appropriate for those with Alzheimer’s, a special diet is not often needed
- Calorie needs decline as we age and our activity declines but seniors still need all the same number of nutrients each day for health
- Residents with dementia may lose the ability to communicate their hunger and thirst
Strategies to Increase Nutrition for Those with Dementia
Here are some tips that family caregivers can do for their loved ones at home or in a facility.
- Offer smaller amounts of food more frequently and offer fluids between meals to avoid early fullness at mealtimes. Monitor intake and alert staff for further assessment when meals are refused.
- Avoid distractions during meal times. Keep the noise level down and any visual distractions, such as floral tablecloths or knickknacks, off the table. Mealtimes should be pleasant and enjoyable for seniors, not rushed or chaotic. Smaller dining rooms for those with dementia may be needed.
- Consult with your senior’s doctor or pharmacist for medications that might be reducing appetite.
- Be sure teeth are in good health, no sores in mouth, dentures fit properly and good tooth brushing occurs daily to prevent sore teeth and gums. It is hard to eat when your mouth is painful. Look at mouth, teeth and gums regularly to spot problems and get treatment started.
- Don’t overwhelm your senior with mixed up foods or too much on the plate. Keep the portions small and foods separate. You may be more successful with foods that are picked up easily, not requiring utensils, and dips that give boosts of flavor. Be sure serving temperatures are acceptable as food that is too hot or too cold may not be palatable to your senior loved one.
- Eat together as much as possible. Sit down and don’t hover over your senior, as this may lead to agitation. Have a conversation with the senior and make eye contact.
- Use clothing protectors so that any spills don’t cause a need to change clothes. Just accept that there will be messes. Adaptive feeding devices are available if extra help is needed for gripping the handle or to prevent spilling hot coffee. Consult with an occupational therapist (OT) for an evaluation so that the appropriate devices or strategies can be initiated.
- Be alert for the need to change food textures. Sometimes softer foods, cut up or chopped meats or even pureed food items are needed to prevent choking episodes.
- Spice it up! Use more seasonings or flavorful foods at each meal. Involve your senior in some food preparation to stimulate interest in the meal. Include food related activities and events to add eating and cooking opportunities.
- You may need a nutritional supplement between meals if intake is poor. Talk with your doctor or dietitian about the best choice.
Some days it may feel overwhelming and a little frustrating to get your senior loved one to eat all the foods you have lovingly prepared. A few small changes when serving may make a big difference in the acceptance your senior has for your meals.
The outcome will be a more well nourished senior who stays healthy longer!