Making Mealtime Better for Dementia Sufferers

Making Mealtime Better for Dementia Sufferers

Creating a family atmosphere, playing music help people eat better.

Maria Teijeiro/Thinkstock

Malnutrition and dehydration are common risks for older people, but especially so for those suffering from dementia. Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in England, have come up with promising—and surprisingly simple—ways to help make mealtime more nourishing for people with dementia.

The research looked at 56 intervention programs involving 2,200 people around the world, and determined which methods were most effective in improving, maintaining, or facilitating hydration and nutrition. Some of the programs had involved changing the color of the plates, for example, while others had tried using waitress/waiter service, or creating a home-like dining environment, or playing different kinds of music. Researchers also looked at if providing increased training for caregivers would help, and if interventions, such as giving encouragement for eating, could improve nutrition. To assess if a program would be considered a success, the researchers looked at hydration status and body weight, and whether a person seemed to be enjoying a better quality of life after the mealtime program had changed.

The team found that there are a number of promising, yet simple, options. The UEA Norwich Medical School’s lead researcher, Lee Hooper, Ph.D., is a dietician, nutritionist and specialist in the nutrition and hydration of older people. She wrote, “We found a number of promising interventions—including eating meals with caregivers, having family-style meals, facilitating social interaction during meals, longer mealtimes, playing soothing mealtime music, doing multisensory exercise [not while eating, as part of the overall day] and providing constantly accessible snacks. Another promising lead: Education and support for both formal and informal caregivers.

Hooper continued, “It is probably not just what people with dementia eat and drink that is important for their nutritional well-being and quality of life—but a holistic mix of where they eat and drink, the atmosphere, physical and social support offered, the understanding of formal care-givers, and levels of physical activity enjoyed.”

Since malnutrition is so closely linked to a poor quality of life, a better understanding of how to help people eat and drink better should aid caregivers in supporting those with dementia.

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.

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