By Colleen Ryan
What if you forgot how to use a fork, knife or spoon? What if you didn’t recognize food? What if you couldn’t remember the last time you ate or what the sensation of feeling hungry meant? Would you be mad, get upset or just stop eating?
“We frequently receive calls from family members who are concerned about their loved one (with dementia) and their ability to eat like they once could,” said Linda Desmet, family services coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association St. Louis Chapter.
“People often think that Alzheimer’s disease only affects memory, but it causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. These problems are severe enough to interfere with daily life, including mealtime.”
Today, more than 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and someone develops the disease every 68 seconds. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and the only cause of death among the top 10 with no way to prevent it, cure it or slow its progression.
Desmet explains that many people who call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline are worried their loved one is not hungry at mealtimes and could be losing weight. Volunteers who serve on the 24/7 helpline explain to callers that there could be a number of reasons why a loved one may not be interested in eating; they may no longer recognize the food that is placed in front of them, they may not know how to use utensils anymore, dementia can change taste buds making foods taste different or not as good.
Depending on what stage of Alzheimer’s a person is experiencing, they may be embarrassed to admit they are not sure how to use utensils or they may not be able to find the words to explain how they are feeling.
Mealtime cannot only be difficult for the person with the disease, but also the caregiver. Due to the disease affecting behavior, sometimes dining becomes a daily battle.
“In most cases, it is possible to help your loved one (with dementia) dine with dignity and create an enjoyable experience for everyone,” said Maggie Murphy-White, education coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association St. Louis Chapter.
“If your loved one becomes easily agitated trying to figure out how to use utensils, then just serve finger foods. This will help reduce agitation.”
“You may also need to remind your loved one how to eat. Eat with them and show them how to drink or what to do with their food. That way they can try to mimic what you are doing.”
Also, as the disease progresses, a loved one may need additional assistance with basic things, like swallowing. Murphy-White suggests rubbing their throat to trigger the swallowing reflex.
As people with dementia and caregivers age, their perspective on growing older is too often focused on the downside of the aging process. However, this is only one side of the coin.
“Many memories are made around a dinner table, and that shouldn’t have to stop once your loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Murphy-White. “You should be able to continue to spend time with each other, family and friends at such an important place in your home.”
By spending time together at meal times, your loved one can still experience the atmosphere in which you made these great memories. By changing eating habits, behaviors or only eating finger foods, you can still continue the memories in a new way.
For more information, people may visit www.alz.org/stl or call 800-272-3900.