Creating the best dining experience for those with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of memory loss is about more than just serving the right foods. Mealtimes are actually great opportunities for caregivers to reconnect with their loved one, nurture their spirit and help them maintain a sense of security, purpose and meaning.
Many people today are often too busy to plan, cook and sit down around the kitchen table for three meals a day. With their additional responsibilities, family caregivers for seniors with memory loss are even more pressed for time. However, if caregivers can learn to prioritize the dining experience and integrate some basic tips, they may begin to have a more enjoyable time for both themselves and their loved one. Here are some ways that caregivers can adapt and improve the mealtime experience for seniors with memory loss:
Ask for Help with Preparation
People with memory loss still yearn to feel productive and valued. Asking for their help with setting the table, arranging flowers or washing vegetables can promote feelings of accomplishment and control over their environment. Additionally, try to incorporate some of your loved one's favorite foods in the menu as often as possible. Ask them for suggestions as well as their advice or assistance as you prepare the meals. If they are assisting you, be sure to offer clear, step-by-step instructions as needed to avoid any frustration. Remember that just because they always knew how to prepare food in the past, they may not recall each step now. Break it down to the tasks they can still feel successful in completing.
Even though a person's memory might be impaired, ensuring that they are still given the opportunity to choose their meal is an important part of helping to maintain their independence and self-esteem. Ideally, entrée choices should be shown to them so they can select what they would like, as the sensory input from this visual experience serves to assist them in making a choice. Even those who no longer verbally express their choices can still point to or show their preferences through their body language.
Serve It Family Style
Serving meals "family style" is one way to offer multiple choices while also promoting a greater sense of independence. Sharing food also gives them the opportunity to serve others, as well as reminisce about the many meals spent around their family's kitchen table.
Many seniors with memory loss require assistance during mealtimes. This can be provided in a way that preserves their dignity and self-esteem. Assistance does not mean doing everything for the person with memory loss but making the modifications that enable them to be as independent as possible. In the event your loved one can no longer successfully use utensils, you can creatively modify their meal by cutting the food and placing it between two slices of bread, a pita pocket, or even inside a cone that ordinarily is used to hold ice cream.
Focus On Engagement
Joining family members or friends for a meal provides an opportunity to have great conversations in a socially engaging atmosphere. Dining with others also helps one to slow down and savor the tastes, aromas and presentation of the meal. Research shows that social engagement is one of the best ways to enhance cognitive functioning. Soft background music or piano music can add to the ambience, making it an even more enjoyable experience.
Make A Schedule
Maintaining a set time or routine for sitting down to have breakfast, lunch or dinner is a wonderful way to add a sense of structure or predictability to the day. Of course, caregivers always need to be willing to adjust the times, especially if the person with memory loss declines your invitation to dine. In those cases, it's better to find something else that they might enjoy doing for a while, such as taking a walk or working on a project together. When they are finished, just come back and invite them to dine again.
Although a healthy diet is critical, remember that often, preserving a loved one's freedom of choice, independence and sense of purpose will do more to improve their quality of life than anything else.
For more information, visit the Alzheimer's Association website, which has great tips for overcoming mealtime challenges.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more