Posted on August 13, 2012
Many people with dementia change their eating habits after they get the disease — and researchers are trying to discover why. But caregivers can help their loved ones get proper nutrition with a few simple tricks.
People with dementia experience many big and small changes as a result of their symptoms. One surprising change is in a dementia patient’s taste buds. Because they don’t experience flavor the way they once did, people with dementia often change their eating habits and adopt entirely new food preferences.
One study looked at patients with a specific kind of dementia characterized by changes in food preferences and eating behaviors along with the more typical dementia symptoms. The researchers found that these dementia patients had trouble identifying flavors and appeared to have lost the ability to remember tastes, leading to the theory that the dementia caused the patients to lose their knowledge of flavors, which in turn can lead to changes in eating behaviors.
At the same time, taste tends to diminish as we age, so dementia patients may crave heavy foods or heavily flavored foods like sweets, says Jillian Ball, RD, of Jillian Ball & Associates Nutrition Consulting in Springfield, Mo. Ball likens it to when you have a cold and can’t taste food as well as usual. She once worked with a 100-year-old dementia patient who only wanted a strong broth and heavy buttermilk for her meals.
Adapting to a Dementia Patient’s Changing Taste Buds
Problems faced by dementia patients vary — they may experience weight loss from a smaller appetite or weight gain from eating high-calorie foods such as desserts, Ball says. For a caregiver, packing enough nutrients into a loved one’s meals can be a challenge, but there are ways to do it, for example:
- Focus on protein. Try to find good sources of protein that your loved one will eat, Ball says. People can’t chew meat as well when they are older (especially if they have dentures) and their stomachs don’t break down protein as well, but protein (along with vitamins and minerals) is vital for healing and staying healthy.
Try offering custard (which is made with eggs), pudding (which contains milk), or liquid supplements such as Ensure or Glucerna, suggests Ball. You can also find therapeutic ice creams, such as Magic Cup, that have added protein, vitamins, and minerals, at some drug stores or medical suppliers.
Another option is to add protein powder, available at medical supply stores. Put a scoop in mashed potatoes or shakes — your loved one won’t even know it’s there.
- Sneak in vegetables. Feeding dementia patients vegetables is definitely a struggle, Ball says. She recommends pureeing vegetables so that they’re easier to eat — or drink when added to a shake. Taking vitamin and mineral supplements is also very important.
- Make meals a social event. We all like to eat socially, including people who have dementia, Ball says. You’ll probably have more success at getting your loved one to eat a healthy meal if she doesn’t eat alone.
- At the end of life, give in without worry. If your loved one is in the end-of-life stage, it’s probably okay to let him eat sweets or any other foods he wants. “Food is one of the last things people can enjoy when they’re sick,” Ball says.
On the other hand, if your loved one still has years ahead of him, you’ll have to take more care to ensure that he’s getting proper nutrition, she says. And if he has diabetes, watching blood sugar will be important.
Changing tastes can be a challenge for the patient and the caregiver alike. But try to make meals special times you enjoy with your loved one — even if his tastes have changed.
Submitted by Gabriela F. Brown, CSA
Constant Companions Home Care