Approaching Eating Challenges for People with Dementia

Blending independence and safety into satisfying meals


For people living with dementia, eating can present a variety of challenges—some of which are more  bvious than others. “Many assume the problem for people with Alzheimer’s is not eating enough, which does occur, but it can also be the opposite,” says Ruth Drew, director of Family and Information Services at the Alzheimer’s Association®. “Because of memory issues caused by the disease, people can forget they already ate and keep eating, resulting in weight gain.”

Alzheimer’s also attacks the body’s ability to function, especially in the middle to late stages of the  isease. A person with dementia may have Approaching Eating Challenges for People with Dementia Blend Independence and Safety into Satisfying Meals trouble lifting utensils or sitting up straight to chew and swallow. However, with careful attention to ability and safety, as well as a dash of creativity, you can address many common eating challenges.

•  Help the person to maintain their independence. Don’t assume that someone struggling to eat needs to be fed. Instead, seek a solution that promotes the person’s independence. For example, if he or she is spilling iced tea, offer it in a lidded cup with a straw. Rather than drawing attention to the person’s challenge, normalize the situation and say, “Here’s your tea.” Experiment together with ergonomic silverware and plates or bowls that anchor to the table. “Sometimes finger foods and spill-proof cups are best,” Drew says. “Help people do as much as they can for as long as they can.”

•  Watch expressions and reactions when eating. A person with dementia may speak less as the disease progresses, so stay attuned to facial expressions and body language. “Watch to see if the person has difficulty chewing and swallowing. If he or she seems to be in pain, consult a medical professional immediately,” Drew says. “Poorly fitting dentures, toothaches, mouth sores, indigestion, or constipation may be the cause. Also take note of which foods the person prefers. Many people with dementia like foods that are soft and sweet, such as applesauce or yogurt.”

•  Create meals that are colorful. Some persons with dementia have difficulty distinguishing foods of similar colors, for example, chicken, mashed potatoes, and cauliflower on a white plate. Serve foods of different colors and use contrasting dishes and linens.

•  Allow enough time. If forgetting to eat or eating too often is a problem, offer regular reminders. In the arly stages of dementia this could include posting a schedule or setting an alarm. If someone is too istracted or restless to finish a meal, offer something nutritious and portable, like a smoothie in a lidded cup with a straw. “While variety can entice many people to try more foods, others may find choices overwhelming and prefer dishes presented one at a time.” Drew says. “Accommodate the person’s needs so he or she can finish the meal at their own pace.”

•  Safety and well-being are critical. “When people stop eating or drinking in their usual way, assess for pain first,” Drew says. “Work with health care professionals to determine the problem.” Some medicines can cause side effects such as loss of appetite or dry mouth. Check with a doctor before giving a person with dementia vitamins or supplements, and learn the Heimlich maneuver so you are prepared in case of choking.

“Your ultimate goal in planning meals for a person with dementia should be to satisfy both their physical and emotional needs,” Drew says. “A focus on independence, simple adjustments and personal connection can help people continue to enjoy eating.”

For more information and ideas, visit or call 800.272.3900.