Stress or Celebration? Meals make Memories.

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How to make your loved one’s holiday meals happy ones and create happy memories for everyone.

People living with dementia have more problems than just remembering where they left their keys or recognising friends and family members.  They may also have problems with depth perception and hearing. They may experience visual disturbances, poor eye-hand co-ordination and difficulty in correctly interpreting and identifying the objects around them.   A holiday meal may also necessitate a change in routine and unfamiliar surroundings. Add to this the usual problems of old age such as missing teeth or dentures.  Put all of this together and the confusion may become overwhelming.

There are, however, things that you can do to make things easier for your loved one without spoiling everyone else’s party.  

Meal Planning Starts with Empathy

First of all, put yourself in their situation and make an assessment of their capabilities and difficulties.  Anticipate and plan for any problems that may arise so that you are prepared.  

Make sure that the other guests, particularly those sitting in the immediate area, are aware of any difficulties that may arise and are informed so that they can lend a friendly hand if needed without embarrassment for anyone concerned. If possible seat familiar faces opposite and either side.  If need be, designate a family member to specifically keep an eye on them.

Take into account any hearing difficulties and keep background noise to a minimum so that your loved one can hear what is going on and, even more important, can be heard so that they can participate in the conversation to the best of their ability.  This also makes it easier if they want to ask for something.  

Can the meal time be at the same time as the person’s usual meal?  Would it be the end of the world to move things half an hour forward or back to accommodate their usual routine and medication schedule?  

Make sure that their chair is stable and easy to get in and out of without having to push at the table.  Help them to be seated and also be alert to the need for bathroom breaks.

Setting the Table

Keep place settings simple and uncluttered so that plates, glasses and utensils are easily recognisable.  If your loved one has a problem with holding things, make sure that knives, forks and spoons have comfortable handles.  If they have favourite utensils that they always use, use them.  Practicality trumps decor every time in these situations.  

Have extra napkins handy for mopping up any spills and accidents without fuss.  Sometimes solidarity can be a big morale booster – we have heard of gatherings where everyone has drunk from sippy cups so no one is the ‘odd one out’.  

Avoid decorator items that may be mistaken for food. That includes place card holders, fancy napkin rings, mini candles, small glittery items and anything else that could be accidentally swallowed.  It is not for nothing that in times gone by, people with dementia were referred as being in their ‘second childhood’ – many of the rules for keeping infants and toddlers safe also apply to people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Food, Glorious Food

Where possible, think in terms of finger foods and presenting items in a way that is easy to recognise and eat.  Avoid huge plates of food – these can be intimidating and overwhelming.  A small quantity, eaten and enjoyed to the full, creates more happiness than a plate heaped high that kills the appetite and is left untouched.  

Tailor the menu to ensure that there are easy-to-eat options and familiar favourites that are easily recognised.  Check that there are no possible medical interactions – for instance many seniors are on warfarin, a blood thinner, and should not eat broccoli or cranberries.  

Have potential second helpings available of anything you know he or she particularly likes. They may not fancy them after all, but on the other hand, that extra thoughtfulness can make them feel special.

As we grow older, our sense of taste changes.  This is accelerated in the case of dementia.  Many foods that used to be enjoyed may now taste bitter or sour.  Don’t be offended or horrified if your loved one wants to cover your lovingly prepared gourmet meal with ketchup – taste is a very subjective thing and at the end of the day, you want your loved one to enjoy their meal so pass the ketchup and refrain from comment!

Make New Memories and Reminisce a Little Too

Use the opportunity if you can to encourage your loved one to reminisce.  Play their favourite music.  Pull out the photograph albums.  Let the young ones listen to the old stories and learn about the experiences of the previous generation.  You never know which family gathering or celebration will be the last that your loved one will be able to attend so make the most of it.  Make new memories for yourselves.

Have nap facilities ready in case of need.  Unfamiliar surroundings and excitement can be exhausting.  Just as you would put small children down for a nap after a heavy meal, seniors appreciate the same consideration.

At the end of the day, do as you would be done by and everyone will have a lovely time.  Happy holidays everyone!

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