Dementia support: helping to maintain good health and nutrition
Dementia is a progressive condition. Over time, it can affect how a person eats and drinks. If you are a carer of a person living with a dementia, you can help them eat a balanced diet and maintain good health.
Importance of good nutrition
It's important the person you care for has a healthy, balanced diet and also gets some exercise.
If they don't eat enough or eat unhealthy food, they can become vulnerable to other illnesses.
People with a dementia can become more confused if they get ill.
Following diagnosis and in the early stages of dementia the priority will be to maintain a healthy weight for the person’s height and continue following a healthy, balanced diet.
As the disease progresses, their appetite will change and decline.
The aim of nutritional care will be to watch out for signs of malnutrition.
Often this will mean moving from a regular diet to a high calorie and high protein diet.
In the last stage of the illness, the aim of nutritional care will be to help the person with dementia enjoy the highest quality of life possible.
Aggressive nutritional support isn’t usually suitable at this stage in the illness.
Noticing changes in eating and drinking habits
If you are a carer of a person with a dementia, you might notice their eating and drinking habits changing over time. This might be due to:
- progression of dementia
- swallowing difficulties
- depression or anxiety
- loss of appetite
- lack of physical activity
If there is a sudden change in the person’s eating and drinking this may be due to:
- an oral or dental infection
- a urinary/kidney infection
- chest infection
But not everyone with a dementia will have these health conditions.
If you're a carer concerned about the person's health, you should contact their GP. The GP might need to refer them to another health care professional.
How to adapt to changing eating habits
If you notice changes in the person's eating and drinking behaviour, you can do things to help them.
Helping to create a calm place for eating and drinking
Before a person with a dementia eats or drinks, you can:
- make sure they're in a relaxed place without noise or distractions
- check they're using dentures, glasses and hearing aids if needed
- check the table is free from unnecessary items
- check they are sitting as upright as possible – this helps them to be alert
- use colour contrast to help them see their food, don't put fish, cauliflower and potatoes on a white plate
- use plain, unpatterned plates or tablecloths
- serve one course at a time
Encouraging a person to eat and drink
When the person you are caring for begins to eat, you can help by:
- feeding only when they're alert and can swallow safely
- being as relaxed and flexible as possible when sitting down to help them to eat and drink
- avoiding rushing them
- telling them about their food
- sitting facing them, or slightly to their side so that you can make eye contact
- placing food where they can see it
- encouraging their attempts to feed themselves
- helping where necessary but not forcing
- giving prompts to chew and swallow
- watching closely and waiting for each swallow - only giving another mouthful when they have swallowed
Helping to encourage appetite
Making food look and smell appealing can encourage the person to eat. You can do this by:
- getting them to help prepare the food or lay the table if possible
- preparing food with different tastes, colours and smells
- separating different types of pureed food on the same plate, such as meat, potatoes and vegetables
- offering regular small meals or snacks - encouraging them to eat when they are at their best and in good form
- serving each course separately to keep food warm and appetising
- offering dessert if they don't finish their dinner
- turning the plate around or moving the plate if they have eyesight problems
If they wake at night and this becomes a pattern, they might be hungry. Ask their GP.
Memory changes and eating and drinking
A person with a dementia often has difficulties concentrating and sitting at a table for the duration of a meal.
Swallowing issues and eating and drinking
A person with a dementia may have difficulty with some types of food and fluids. This can lead to them spitting out lumps or holding food in the mouth.
Changing behaviours at mealtimes
As the condition progresses, a person living with a dementia may display changes in behaviour at mealtimes.
Where to find help and support
Living with a dementia can bring different changes to a person’s life that are individual to them. As a carer, there ways you can help support them in their everyday life and activities. If you 're concerned about the person you are caring for, you can speak to their GP.
They can refer you to a relevant health professional including:
- occupational therapist
- speech and language therapist
You can find more information and support services from the following organisations, see also ‘more useful links section’:
The Public Health Agency has also produced a range of information to help support people with a dementia, their families and friends.
This information includes the following publications:
- Dementia and care of natural teeth and dentures
- Early stages of dementia
- Communicating effectively with a person living with dementia
- Are you worried about dementia
Dementia apps library
The Apps4Dementia library is a digital service which groups together safe, trusted apps to provide information and guidance on the condition.
There a number of apps that offer support, self-care of symptoms and allows users to carry on with their day-to-day activities for as long as possible.
More useful links
- Dementia services - Belfast Health and Social Care Trust website
- Dementia services - Northern Health and Social Care Trust website
- Dementia services - South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust website
- Memory/ dementia services - Southern Health and Social Care Trust website
- Dementia services - Western Health and Social Care Trust website