What to do if a Dementia Patient is Not Eating

Unfortunately, refusing to eat and/or a lack of appetite is a common aspect of dementia, which can be a great source of concern and frustration for caregivers. Forcing your loved one to eat is not an option, however, since they may choke or accidentally inhale food into their lungs. So creative, compassionate solutions are required instead when your loved one with dementia refuses to eat.

For early and mid-stage dementia sufferers, lack of appetite may be caused by a range of factors, such as confusion, mood and the inability to recognize the signs of hunger. In the case of severe-stage dementia sufferers, lost appetite/interest in food is a response to the body shutting down due to the progression of the illness. Some tactics to try when a loved one with dementia refuses to eat include:

Tips and Advice: Eating and Dementia

  • Assess whether part of their problem is related to their vision. If they’re only eating half their plate, try turning the plate 180 degrees, and then see if they finish the meal.
  • Explore colors and contrasts. Using colorful dishes may aid your loved one’s focus, whereas a white plate on a white tablecloth may have the opposite effect.
  • Find alternative hydration methods to just drinking water. Try liquid meals like soup or cereal.
  • Ensure that dental issues aren’t the real cause of your loved one’s eating habits. Inspect their mouth for redness, swelling, etc., and coordinate a trip to the dentist as needed.
  • Consult with your loved one’s physician to rule out other causes of their refusal to eat, like heartburn, constipation, diarrhea and nausea. Also ask the doctor if any medications they are taking could also be the cause of the loss in appetite.
  • Serve small, frequent snacks and meals, especially easy-to-eat finger foods.
  • If possible, encourage your loved one to get some light exercise, like walking, which can help stimulate their appetite. Check out our list of essential exercises for those with Dementia for some exercise ideas.
  • Offer your loved one a drink or swab their mouth with a moistened sponge in order to keep them comfortable. Small amounts of juice on the tongue or a drop of honey or pure maple syrup may also be enjoyable.
  • If your loved one is no longer eating or accepting food, and they have an advanced directive or living will, you can follow their wishes as outlined therein.
  • Have a conversation with your loved one’s doctor about whether or not it’s advisable to prolong life through hydration and artificial nutrition.
  • Attend caregiver support groups. Many people in these groups have been in similar situations and can offer some valuable advice.

Be Patient

And finally, remember to treat your loved one as an adult, not a child. When your loved one with dementia refuses to eat, don’t punish them for not eating; simply try another tactic and begin again. You may find a solution that fulfills their hunger and reduces your worries. For further information and assistance, call our Caregiver Support Line at 1-800-388-0199 or contact your local Care Navigator. We’re here to help!