Dementia support: understanding changing behaviour at mealtimes

Dementia is a progressive condition. Over time, a person living with a dementia may display changes in behaviour at mealtimes. This can affect how they eat and drink. If you are a carer, you can do things to help when they're eating and drinking.

How to help with eating and drinking at mealtimes 

If changes in behaviour are affecting eating and drinking, there are some things that can help.

These include:

  • encouraging them to try the first mouthful to get a taste
  • using prompts, for example saying “that’s nice”
  • if they open their mouth to a cup more readily than to a spoon, try a few mouthfuls of fluid first, then move on to the spoon
  • encouraging them to feed themselves as much as possible, even if this is messy
  • experimenting with different tastes and textures - people with a dementia often have a preference for sweet foods; sweeten meals by adding sugar, maple syrup, or ketchup

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.

Safety around non-food items 

As the condition progresses, a person with a dementia may mistake household items as food. They may try to eat tissues, buttons or liquid tabs. This can lead to them hurting themselves.

There are things that you can do to help avoid this. These include:

  • ensuring everyone involved in the person’s care is aware of this including visitors
  • locking away all harmful substances like cleaning products
  • being vigilant and removing small items that may be easily placed in the mouth
  • they may be hungry -  offer food as an alternative to the item
  • ensuring food is available and easily accessible throughout the day so they can eat what and when they want safely

What to do if food preferences change 

A person with a dementia may develop a preference for sweeter foods. It is important to offer them a choice of foods if practical.

Things that can help include:

  • sprinkling sugar on foods before or after cooking - honey, jam, syrup and fresh fruit can be used in savoury dishes to add a sweet flavour
  • using sweet toppings in certain savoury dishes, for example, sweet pastry on vegetables, meat or fish pies and crumbles
  • trying savoury dishes already containing a sweet flavour, like sweet and sour sauces, pork and apple in cider sauce, barbecue sauces, honey glazed ham, gammon and pineapple and sweeter curries
  • adding strong tasting sauces such as ketchup or sweet chilli sauce to food - these should be tested out in small quantities in order to identify likes and dislikes
  • using herbs and spices to enhance flavours
  • using strong flavoured dips like garlic mayo or barbeque sauce if the person does not like gravy

How to help when they overfill their mouth with food 

If the person you are caring for is putting too much food into their mouth, there are things you can do that can help avoid this.

These include:

  • cutting all food into small pieces before presenting it
  • encouraging the person to take small mouthfuls and eat at a slower rate
  • using smaller items of cutlery, like a teaspoon or dessert fork
  • encouraging the person to put their cutlery down and chew or swallow
  • a gentle hand on the arm with a prompt may help, such as “take your time”
  • offering a soft, moist diet
  • offering smaller servings at one time

Cramming food into the mouth can mean a person risks choking. It can be worrying to watch someone with a dementia choke on their food.

If the person is coughing or choking often, contact their GP. They might need to be assessed  by a speech and language therapist.

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 are ways you can help support them in their everyday life and activities.

If you're concerned about the person you're caring for, you can speak to their GP.

They can refer you to a relevant health professional including:

  • dietitian
  • physiotherapist
  • occupational therapist
  • speech and language therapist

For more help and advice about supporting a person living with a dementia, read about:

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 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 enable users to carry on with their day-to-day activities for as long as possible.

More useful links 

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