If you are the caregiver for a senior adult who struggles with mealtimes, you understand the fine line between promoting independence at meals and being an enforcer of healthy eating. Whether or not they eat food, or what food they choose to eat is often one of the few things people can still control when other things in their life start to feel out of control. This sometimes leads to an unhealthy pattern of only choosing things that taste a certain way, or refusing to eat enough out of frustration with physical limitations that make self-feeding difficult.
It is tempting to go to extremes by either taking a hard stance on mealtimes or just throwing up your hands and refusing to give any guidance at all. But there are ways to create a healthy balance between independence and assistance while keeping mealtimes a pleasant and stress-free experience. Having the right attitude and employing a few eating aids can go a long way towards helping your loved one enjoy mealtimes again.
The first (and easiest) thing to change about mealtimes is your attitude. When you approach mealtimes as a stressful battle, you are setting the stage for problems. Older adults, especially those with dementia, will often pick up on body language and tone of voice more than the words you are saying. If they feel a confrontational vibe, they will mirror that. This will sometimes result in rigid feeding behaviors, like refusing to eat or choosing a limited range of foods.
Mealtime should feel relaxed and pleasant. If you are used to dropping food off in front of your loved one and then using that time to catch up on housework or “me time,” you may want to reconsider. Sitting together at mealtime, sharing a meal, and having conversation will make your loved one feel comfortable and valued. Pleasant, safe feelings lead to better eating habits and encourage a willingness to try new things.
Also, this time together will give you the opportunity to notice if they are experiencing any attention issues or fine motor issues that may make feeding difficult. You can use verbal cues to keep them focused on their meal, or to help gently direct them on how to get the food on their utensil and into their mouth. They may need help with the sequencing of events, or they may have side neglect from stroke, and fail to see the food on one side of their plate.
Some mealtime problems may be due more to physical issues than mindset issues. Does your loved one have arthritis, a weak grasp, or other hand limitations? Special utensils can help. For example, a built-up-handle fork is perfect for people with upper extremity weakness or reduced range-of-motion. This type of fork features a built-up handle with a contoured shape. That makes it easier to hold and use.
Maybe your loved one gets frustrated at chasing food off the edge of their plate. The Inner Lip Plate is designed as an aid in self-feeding. The inner lip holds the food on the plate, while they bring their fork or spoon to the edge of the plate. It’s perfect for use at home because it blends in with regular tableware. Plus, it’s dishwasher and microwave safe.
An aid like the Stress Less Drink Holder can reduce spills and frustration. Set it beside your loved one’s favorite comfy chair or couch, bedside, desk, or even dining room table. The Stress Less can accommodate a variety of beverage containers from mugs, coffee cups, glasses & tumblers. It has a built-in Coaster and a Handy Holder for personal items like tea, sugar packets, a pen, magnifier, even their glasses, or whatever they wish to place in the handy slots. And the coaster rim helps contain any unintentional drips or spills.
Check out all of our eating helpers and utensils here.