Alzheimer's: Making mealtimes easier

Alzheimer's and eating can be a challenge. Understand what causes eating problems and take simple steps to ensure good nutrition. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Alzheimer's disease and eating challenges often go hand in hand. As Alzheimer's progresses, poor nutrition can aggravate confusion and lead to physical weakness, as well as increase the risk of infection and other health concerns. If you're caring for a loved one who has Alzheimer's, understand what causes eating problems and take steps to optimize good nutrition.

Consider underlying conditions

If your loved one is having trouble eating, consider whether any underlying conditions could be contributing to the problem. For example:

  • Ill-fitting dentures can make eating painful. If your loved one wears dentures, make sure they fit properly. Regularly check your loved one's mouth for sores or other oral or dental issues.
  • Medications can affect appetite. Many medications decrease appetite, including some drugs used to treat Alzheimer's. If you think medications are contributing to your loved one's eating problems, ask your loved one's doctor about substitutions.
  • Chronic conditions can affect appetite. Diabetes, heart disease, digestive problems and depression can dampen your loved one's interest in eating. Constipation can have the same effect. Treating these or other underlying conditions might improve your loved one's appetite.

Acknowledge declining skills and senses

In the early stages of Alzheimer's, your loved one might simply forget to eat or lose the skills needed to prepare proper meals. You might call your loved one to remind him or her to eat or help your loved one prepare food. If you make meals for your loved one in advance, you might need to instruct him or her through the steps of unwrapping, reheating and serving.

In addition, your loved one's sense of smell and taste might begin to diminish. If food doesn't smell or taste as good as it once did, your loved one might be less inclined to eat.

As Alzheimer's progresses, your loved one might forget table manners and eat from others' plates or out of serving bowls. Changes in your loved one's brain might cause him or her to lose impulse control and judgment and, in turn, eat anything in sight — including items not intended as food. During the later stages of the disease, difficulty swallowing is common.

Expect agitation and distraction

Agitation and other signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's can make it difficult for your loved one to sit still long enough to eat a meal. Distractions at mealtime might make this even worse. To reduce distractions, turn off the television, radio and telephone ringer. Put your cellphone or pager on vibrate. You might also clear the table of any unnecessary items.

Get visual

Use white dishes to help your loved one distinguish the food from the plate. Similarly, use placemats of a contrasting color to help your loved one distinguish the plate from the table. Stick with solid colors, though. Patterned plates, bowls and linens might be confusing.

Feb. 04, 2012 See more In-depth