Eating and drinking difficulties in dementia: what should we be aware of when discussing the difficulties with people with mild dementia?
By Megan Armstrong, on 17 June 2021
To mark the National Nutrition & Hydration Week 2021, Kanthee Anantapong (Psychiatrist and UCL PhD student) will share recent work from his team, which involved people with mild dementia discussing their perceptions about eating and drinking difficulties.
At some point in dementia progression, 8 in 10 people living with dementia can experience some types of eating and drinking problems. This includes food appetite and preference changes, inability to recognise food and utensils, behavioural difficulties and disruptive eating routine, and swallowing difficulties. The difficulties usually become more severe at the later stage, and this is challenging and demanding for families and healthcare professionals to make decisions and provide support for persons with dementia . Knowing what people living with dementia would want for themselves will help the families and professionals in managing the eating and drinking difficulties at the later stage.
In our recent project, we talked to people with mild dementia and asked them about their understanding and needs on eating and drinking problems resulting from dementia . We found that many people with mild dementia experienced some mild changes in their appetite, food preferences and social meals. Few people had mild swallowing difficulties. Most attributed these changes to their own choices, other life circumstances such as retirement and moving house or other physical diseases such as dental problems, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
People with mild dementia recognised that at the later stage they would be less capable of taking care of themselves, including eating and drinking problems. They generally accepted some assistances if other people would try encouraging them to eat and drink, offering them favourite dishes and drinks, and adapting utensils and home environment. They did not want their families to sacrifice themselves too much for this because it would require lots of their effort and personal time. People with mild dementia did not like other people treating them like a child to give them food and drink, for example, coaxing or pretending the spoon is an aeroplane. The use of artificial nutrition and hydration (feeding tubes and drips) was also not their ideal choice to support eating and drinking problems, especially the feeding tubes. While intravenous drips were acceptable for treating acute illnesses, they felt tube feeding was unnatural and would not bring them pleasure of eating and drinking and quality of life. So, they preferred families and professionals to avoid using tube feeding for them.
There are growing recommendations to include people with dementia in making decisions and planning for their own care . However, from our work we found that most people with mild dementia want to delay discussion about eating and drinking difficulties because they thought this might not be related to dementia, or they probably could adapt their lifestyle to prevent the progression. The fears of being burdensome and being treated like a child could also be the reasons for their wish to delay. The delayed discussion and planning can lead to the later eating and drinking difficulties being managed against the person with dementia’s preferences, dignity and autonomy, for example, the overuse of tube feeding . In fact, people with mild dementia in this study strongly wanted to maintain their sense of autonomy and have a good quality of life throughout their dementia progression, especially at the end of life.
To ensure that at the later stage the person with dementia will receive eating and drinking support aligned to their wishes, we encourage families and healthcare professionals to gradually but continuously engage the person with dementia in the discussion and bear cautions in mind about the person’s understandings and fears about eating and drinking problems and assistances. For people who have missed the chance to the discuss this, we recommend families and professionals look for and respect clues from the person with dementia when providing eating and drinking care. For example, to offer their favourite food and drink if they requested, or to stop and try later if they refused at the time. The aims of eating and drinking at this stage should be to respect their dignity and maintain wellbeing, but not to keep complete nutrition, which are in line with the voices of people with mild dementia participating in our project.
- Anantapong K, Davies N, Chan J, McInnerney D, Sampson EL. Mapping and understanding the decision-making process for providing nutrition and hydration to people living with dementia: a systematic review. BMC Geriatr. 2020;20(1):520. doi: 10.1186/s12877-020-01931-y.
- Anantapong K, Barrado-Martín Y, Nair P, Rait G, Smith CH, Moore KJ, et al. How do people living with dementia perceive eating and drinking difficulties? A qualitative study. Age and Ageing. 2021. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afab108.
- Alzheimer’s Society. From diagnosis to end of life: The lived experiences of dementia care and support. London: Alzheimer’s Society, 2020.