Dementia & Community Food Programs

Written by Farzana Latif & Karen Giesbrecht

You are what you eat – good nutrition contributes to healthy brain development & functioning.

DementiaAccording to some estimates, 1 out of every 3 people reading this will develop some form of dementia in their golden years. As memory and strength begin to fade, individuals with a good support system will have their partners, family members, friends and eventually professional care staff provide needed support with basic activities like meal preparation and eating.

Consider now the vulnerable individuals in our city who live without family, a close social network, and an income that would provide care at increasing levels as dementia sets in. Maybe Joe, the homeless man you passed on the way to work, who is in his 50’s, but a hard life prematurely aged his body. Or Lydia, the older woman living alone on your block, who has always been independent, but did not seem to recognize you when you last saw her.

Joe and Lydia live fairly isolated lives. They do not reach Vancouver’s Healthy City Goal that “all Vancouverites report that they have at least four people in their network that they can rely on for support in times of need.”  But Joe and Lydia do attend community meals regularly, nourished by the social connections as much as the food.

If you volunteer at one of these community meals, you may notice some behavioural, emotional and physical changes in Joe and Lydia, such as:

  • Poorer appetite
  • Sunken eyes and dry skin from dehydration
  • Weight loss and baggy clothes

Common difficulties associated with dementia and nutritional needs include:

  • Decreased ability to recognize hunger and satiety
  • Decreased ability to taste or smell food
  • Food preferences might change
  • Preparing food becomes more difficult
  • Unable to communicate food likes and dislikes
  • Difficulties with chewing and swallowing

If you suspect guests at your community program are starting to show signs of dementia, try these mealtime tips:

  • Serve small portions so as not to overwhelm
  • Give extra sauces for flavour and because moist food is easier to swallow
  • Avoid difficult to eat foods, such as hard, crunchy vegetables, or crumbly baked goods
  • Offer more finger foods if you notice coordination problems, such as chicken strips, or soft sandwiches
  • Encourage hydration with water or other non-caffeinated, low sugar beverages
  • Offer simple selections, such as choosing between two items, but not more
  • Slow down and enjoy mealtimes with the individual
  • Keep conversation, friendly, simple and light-hearted – if an individual starts to talk about something that you do not think is true, do not argue, but try to redirect the conversation to another topic
  • Look for ways to get individuals involved in planning, preparing and serving meals for their peers

Poor nutrition leads to an overall functional decline, decreased mobility and an increased need for assistance and encouragement. Meal times are important for sharing and offer a great opportunity for people like Joe and Lydia to socialize with friends and neighbours.

As volunteers and staff of community programs, we must respect an individual’s autonomy, but if we notice someone is not functioning and suspect dementia has reached a critical stage, we can:

  • Send small, non-perishable snacks and beverages with individuals when they leave the community program
  • Ask about their home supports, and ensure they are aware of available services in their area

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