The Dementia Primer: 12 Tips on How to Get Someone with Dementia to Eat

affordable home care, assisted home care, at home caregivers, companion home care, disability home care, elder care in Minnesota, eldercare at home, elderly home assistanceAs a volunteer at an adult day care, Lorri was accustomed to the unique challenges of communicating with those who have Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.  One day, though, she made a mistake when encouraging “Sam” to drink his grape juice.  After another worker put a cup in his hand, he stared at it, clearly confused about what to do.

“You drink it,” Lorri reminded him.  “You drink it, like this.”  She modeled for him by lifting an imaginary cup to her lips.  Sam then followed her modeling, quickly lifting the cup of juice up to her lips.  He splashed all the juice on her face, sending a cascade of purple down the front of her clothing.

When it comes to dementia, eating can pose a variety of problems.  As with Sam, the person may forget how to eat or drink.  In the early stages, however, it may just be a challenge for those taking care of elderly parents to get them to eat even when they are very capable.

As a help for senior caregivers, we present the following tips to aid with dementia and eating problems.   Remember that managing the care of someone with memory loss is a constant process of trying different interventions until an effective intervention is found.  Assessment and re-assessment as the disease progresses is par for the course.

1.  Don’t ask. If you ask Grandpa if he wants lunch, you are giving him the option of declining.  It’s possible he may be hungry but may not remember what lunch is.  It’s also possible that he may decline when he would actually eat if given the chance.  Instead of asking, try to phrase it as a statement, such as, “It’s time for lunch” or “We’re going to eat now.”

2.  Prepare a meal and set it down within view. Although Grandma may decline food when you offer it to her, before too long, the sight and smell of the food might trigger the desire to eat.

3.  Eat with Grandma. Eating is a social experience.  If she sees you eating, she may want to join in the activity.  It might also provide the visual cues to remind her of what to do.

4.  Limit options. Depending on how advanced Grandpa is in his memory loss, giving options for a meal might be too much for him to handle.  He may reach the time when asking, “Do you want roast beef or pork chops?” might confuse him.  There may come a time when you have to decide the menu without asking input.

5.  Increase dining frequency. Frequent, smaller portions may be easier for Grandma to manage than large meals.  Try finger foods and snacks as an alternative to traditional, big meals.

6.  Try foods of different textures. With advanced dementia, people may respond to the feel of food in their mouths.  While Grandma might have once loved apple sauce, for example, the soft, mushy texture may no longer appeal to her.

7.  Leave ample time for eating. It’s important that Grandma doesn’t feel rushed, pressured, or anxious while eating.  People with dementia respond to both tone of voice and non-verbal communication.  Use a calm tone and gentle demeanor when approaching meal time.

8.  Experiment with adaptive dinnerware. A search online will yield a host of different kinds of adaptive dinnerware specifically for people with memory loss.

10.  Get them involved. When you care for older people with dementia, getting them involved with the food prep may spur their interest in eating and provide some brain stimulation.  Depending on her level of functioning, Grandma may be able to assist with setting the table, folding napkins, rinsing fruit, stirring things, etc.

11.  Minimize distractions. Prevent anything else in the environment from stealing Grandpa’s attention from the meal.  Turn off the TV and radio, keep grandchildren out of the room, provide ample lighting, etc.

12.  At the end stages of dementia, you may need to be more actively involved. In the later stages, Grandma may not remember how to use a fork or how to chew.  If needed, instruct her by breaking the process of eating down into specific tasks.  Only give one task at a time.  For example:

“Pick up your fork.  Pick up some food with your fork.  Bring your fork to your mouth.  Put the food in your mouth.  Chew the food.  Swallow it.”  Eventually, you may need to feed her.



Be sure to check out our primers 8 Things You Need to Know about Dementia and Alzheimer’s, 6 Tips for Working with People with Dementia and Alzheimer’s, and 6 Pitfalls of Caregiving for People with Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

For additional insight, read caregiver Jody’s personal journey of facing her own mother’s dementia diagnosis.

If you’ve been caring for a loved one with memory loss, we’d love to hear your tips for encouraging people with dementia to eat.  Please comment below.


Leanne I. Esch, LSW

November 1, 2012



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