Eating the same meals as everyone else in your community might be difficult for residents with dementia. This is because many dementia patients face mealtime challenges, like getting food, being distracted, having trouble using utensils, refusing to sit, and refusing food. Plus, current staff ratios at senior living communities during meal times are often one nurse for every 10 to 15 residents, making staff assistance at mealtimes challenging.
It’s estimated that 65 million people will have dementia by 2030, so your dining team must understand how to feed these residents.
Why Does Dementia Make Eating More Difficult?
There are several reasons that residents with dementia may have trouble eating. First, because of their decline in memory, they may not recognize the food you’re putting on their plate and they won’t eat it. Dementia patients may also have a decreased sense of smell and taste. This could cause them to not eat certain foods because they don’t smell or taste as good as they used to.
Another reason could be due to medications. Certain medications or new dosages may affect a person’s appetite. Speak with the patient’s health team to understand if this might be why they aren’t eating as much.
Some dementia patients also have difficulty swallowing and have a higher risk of aspiration when they eat. You can learn more about dysphagia and how to help these patients have a better dining experience in this blog post.
Other reasons that dementia patients might have difficulty eating include ill-fitting dentures that cause pain, lack of exercise, and over-consumption of sugary foods that diminishes appetite at meal-times.
How to Improve the Dining Experience for Dementia Patients
It’s just as important for dementia patients to receive a balanced diet. That’s the first step to any great meal program. There are also some other steps you can take to improve the dining experience for residents with dementia.
Keep your table settings minimal. Limiting distractions is important when it comes to the dining experience for residents with dementia. Extra items, like a fancy centerpiece, might distract the resident. In the same vein, you should also make sure the dining room has limited distractions as well. There shouldn’t be any televisions, radios, or other distracting surroundings (like odd furniture).
Keep the plate simple. Serve only one or two items at a time to not overwhelm the resident. And make sure all food on the plate is distinguishable from the other items. Dementia may result in changes in visual and abilities, which make it difficult for patients to tell the difference between food on the plate, the plate itself, and the table. Think about high-contrast colored food or contrasting bowls and placemats.
Take the resident’s food preferences into account. Liberalized diets aim to provide residents with the food they prefer, while still keeping them healthy, and The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services encourages communities like yours to liberalize diets when possible to promote person-centered care. Make sure to ask residents regularly about their food preferences. They may develop new ones or start to dislike their old favorites.
Give them plenty of time to eat (about an hour). This gives residents ample time to chew and swallow food safely. Also, your team should always test the food’s temperature before serving. A patient with memory issues might not realize if something is too hot or too cold for them.
Keep it social. A social dining experience can be more fulfilling for your entire community. Have residents eat together. When they experience moments of laughter, connection, and conversation, they’ll look forward to mealtimes in the future.
The Importance of Offering a Finger Foods Program
We’ve found that one of the biggest things that impacts a dementia patient’s dining experience is the ability to eat independently because all humans value independence. For residents who have physical limitations or are in memory care, eating can be a frustrating and/or embarrassing task.
That’s why a finger food program is one of the best ways to improve the dining experience for dementia patients who may have difficulty using utensils. Finger foods don’t require the use of a fork and knife and may encourage residents with dementia to eat more often and more independently.
Ideal finger foods include sandwiches, wraps, fruits, veggies, cheese cubes, meatballs, and pastries. We recommend putting finger foods throughout your community at all hours of the day for those residents who like the graze. These easy, portable snacks will help them eat how, when, and where they want.
The Empower Program
Culinary Services Group created the Empower Finger Foods program to help residents with dementia eat with more dignity and independence. The focus of this resident-first philosophy is to restore a sense of satisfaction and independence to your residents’ dining experience. Communities with the Empower Program see prolonged independence, increased self-esteem, and reduced weight loss and malnutrition.
Some menu items from this program include stuffed roasted mini peppers, mini loaded baked potatoes, mac & cheese croquettes, and salmon cakes. These finger foods are provided to your residents throughout the day so people can easily access them whenever they want.
This premium program considers an individual resident’s prescribed therapeutic diet, food preferences, and other nutritional concerns. Our Registered Dietitians work closely with your community’s Speech-Language Pathologist and healthcare team to determine if the Empower Program is an appropriate strategy for individual residents. Then, we give your facility a full spectrum of resources to help you serve a variety of finger food menu items.
If you’d like to learn more about our Empower program, which can reduce mealtime assistance and can prolong independence, contact us today.