10 tips to get them to eat and drink more

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“My father-in-law has dementia. He doesn’t eat well and frequently doesn’t finish drinks. He turns over the cutlery over and over and has to be reminded to eat, as well as forgetting he is holding a cup. I’ve seen your comments about sippy cups and I think we’ll get him a mug with a straw at least, that really helped. But I just wondered if you can help with the eating? He’s currently being cared for at home by my mother-in-law.”

Before I get into some tips about how to get a person to eat and drink more, I want to offer this caveat: when someone with dementia progresses to a certain point, their body no longer tells them to eat. I don’t know how advanced he is, but at some point, as he is actually beginning to pass away, it won’t matter what tips you use, he will just stop eating. And this is natural. 

In the meantime, here are some tips to encourage eating:

  1. Make sure what you’re offering him is sweet and tastes good. Many people with dementia eventually lose their ability to taste foods that aren’t sweet. Also, did he like that food or drink before he got dementia? Don’t start bringing new items, like extra protein, into the diet to “make him better,” instead, focus on what he enjoys.
  2. Sounds like he’s forgetting how to use utensils. Instead of fighting it, adapt. Switch to a mug for drinking soup (instead of a spoon and bowl) and switch to finger foods. Offer food he can pick up with his hands—a burger and fries is finger food!
  3. Offer small meals throughout the day instead of big meals 2 or 3 times a day. Snacking is easier because he can get enough water and food without sitting down for a whole meal.
  4. Don’t ask him if he’s hungry. Instead, just present the food and beverage. “Here, this is for you.”
  5. Offer more water throughout the day. One thing caregivers always forget to offer is water. And it’s not, “Are you thirsty?” but instead handing the person with dementia a glass of water without asking.
  6. If he’s having trouble swallowing, adjust the diet. You may need a mechanical soft (”ground”) diet or a puree option. You may also need to add thickened liquids.
  7. Eat with him. People with dementia have an easier time following cues when they can mimic others.
  8. Change the color of the cup and plate. Make sure that the cup and plate are a different color than the actual meal—red is a great option. Blue actually discourages food intake.
  9. Turn on some music (without lyrics). We’re often used to eating meals in restaurants or maybe with some music on in the background at home. Something without lyrics won’t encourage distracting singing, but it may encourage food intake.
  10. There are a lot of cool plate and mug modifications you can make. I recommend doing a Web search for different types of plate guards and cups.
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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of three published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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