Healthy Eating for People Living with Dementia

Food is an important part of our lives. It provides nourishment, helps us celebrate our culture, and creates moments for joy and togetherness. For those living with dementia, having the right accommodations can make a big difference in preserving the many benefits around mealtimes.

“Food is universal and connects us to our most cherished moments,” explains Chef Nancy Gierwielaniec, senior food services coordinator with Arden Courts ProMedica Memory Care. “Loved ones living with dementia should continue to experience connections over a meal. It should provide much needed structure, and time to enjoy family and friends.”

Gierwielaniec has 30 years of culinary experience, and for the past 19 years, has helped provide delicious and nutritious meals to those living with dementia. She knows dementia can bring several challenges related to eating and nutrition.

If your loved one has dementia, Gierwielaniec offers the following tips to help you and your loved one continue to enjoy food and mealtimes.

  • Consider the MIND diet. This diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet (a heart healthy eating plan) and the DASH diet (used to prevent or treat high blood pressure). It’s often recommended by physicians and experts in memory care. The diet is rich in vegetables, whole grains, fruit, protein and olive oil.
  • Aim for nutrient-dense, seasonal foods. Shopping in season helps you find the foods with the best flavor and highest nutrients. Local foods spend less time in travel, so consider a stop at your local farmer’s market. When you’re at the grocery store, try to find seasonal produce and shop the perimeter at your store, which has fewer preserved and processed foods.
  • Modify foods and eating tools. Dementia can affect a person’s physical abilities. Watch for changes in your loved one’s ability to swallow and handle flatware. Opt for fork-friendly foods and finger foods if needed. Foods like spaghetti, fine noodles and rice may be difficult to eat. Cut protein into strips, prepare tender cooked potatoes and vegetables that are easy to eat and consider serving sandwiches.
  • Be aware of sensory experiences. The eating experience is more than just taste; sight, smell and sounds all make a difference at mealtime. Make sure the dining space is well lit and there is visual contrast with the food, as well as dinnerware and linens. For instance, a meal of chicken, mashed potatoes and cauliflower could benefit from a colored plate. As dementia progresses, sweetening food with sugar or honey can help keep foods from tasting bitter to your loved one. Remember to keep the setting simple by placing only the necessary eating tools on the table.
  • Keep dining out enjoyable. A familiar restaurant can be a fun outing for your loved one. Choose a place with a calmer, quieter environment and go at an ideal time of day, such as before the dinner rush. Suggest one or two meals from the menu you know your loved one likes to keep decision making easier. Remember your loved one may tire easily, so look for signs that they are tired. Keep the outing short by skipping the appetizer and taking the dessert home.

Strategies to achieve good nutrition and maintain healthy eating habits for your loved one may change as their dementia progresses. Talk with your loved one’s physician and seek help from a memory care community near you.

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