Eating and drinking for a person with dementia

Dementia often has an impact on people’s appetite and ability to eat and drink. Read our advice on some of the changes you might notice and how to support the person you care for.

What causes problems with eating and drinking in dementia?

People with dementia may experience problems with eating and drinking, and it’s quite common for their appetite to change as their condition progresses.

They might:

  • forget to eat or drink
  • not recognise when they are hungry, thirsty or full
  • have trouble preparing food or drinks
  • struggle to recognise food items
  • have a change in appetite or taste
  • find certain colours, textures or smells of food off-putting
  • struggle to follow particular diets, for example for diabetes, coeliac disease, or religious or cultural diets
  • have difficulty handling cutlery and feeding themselves
  • find it difficult to swallow
  • develop a sweet tooth
Helping with eating

Helping a person with dementia to maintain a healthy diet can be difficult, but it’s important to encourage them to eat well. You could try:

  • involving the person in deciding what to eat – you could suggest two options
  • getting them to help prepare food
  • offering a small snack before a meal; this may help them realise they’re hungry
  • providing foods with different tastes, smells and colours to stimulate their appetite
  • giving them small, regular portions rather than large meals
  • turning off the TV to avoid distractions
  • playing some soothing, familiar music
  • planning mealtimes to avoid times when the person may be tired or distressed
  • allowing plenty of time to eat
  • eating with the person – but bear in mind some people may be self-conscious about eating in company
  • making sure the room is well-lit
  • using plain coloured plates so they can see the food easily
  • giving them finger food
  • trying adapted cutlery for people with dementia
Helping with drinking

A person with dementia may not always be able to recognise when they are thirsty, or communicate their thirst. This means it can be difficult for them to drink the recommended eight to 10 glasses or mugs of fluid per day. You could try:

  • making sure the person always has a drink beside them
  • offering squash if they dislike water
  • offering a choice of hot and cold drinks
  • helping if they are struggling to pick up or hold a cup
  • offering different shapes and sizes of cup
  • using a favourite mug, glass or cup, if they have one
Storing food

People with dementia might need help keeping track of what food they have at home and storing it safely. You could try:

  • storing food so it’s easy to access and eat, such as pouring cereals into clear tubs so the person can see what’s inside, or cutting cheese into cubes
  • buying chilled or frozen ready meals – but be aware that the person might need help heating them safely. You could put labels with clear cooking instructions on the top of the meal
  • putting notes on the doors of cupboards, the fridge and freezer explaining what foods are inside
  • checking stored foods regularly and disposing of anything out of date
  • finding out if they’re eligible for meals on wheels by entering their postcode here
Weight loss and dementia

Some eating and drinking issues associated with dementia can lead to weight loss and malnutrition. Although the problems may be directly related to their dementia, there may be underlying medical issues such as:

  • depression
  • mouth pain or dental problems
  • difficulty swallowing
  • infections or other physical illnesses
  • constipation, which can make people feel full and uncomfortable

If you have noticed changes in the person’s appetite, eating or drinking habits, it’s a good idea to book a check-up with their GP or dentist to rule out other causes. Not eating or drinking enough can lead to issues like dehydration, constipation, urinary tract infections (UTIs) and weight loss, which may make their dementia symptoms worse.

If the person has difficulty swallowing, ask your GP for a referral to a Speech and Language Therapist. They can assess the problem and suggest foods that the person can eat more easily.

If they need to eat pureed food, be aware that this can be less nutritious. You could try:

  • adding skimmed milk powder (from most supermarkets) to food
  • mixing skimmed milk powder with milkshake powder and full fat milk to create a high nutrient drink. Choose milkshake powders that are fortified with vitamins, and encourage them to drink one pint a day
  • asking their GP or dietitian about the possibility of prescribing high-nutrient, high-calorie meal supplement drinks

While most younger people are advised to follow a low fat, low sugar diet, older people and those with dementia need more nutrients, protein and calories. Ideally, they should also take a 10 microgram vitamin D supplement (available from pharmacies) every day.

Weight gain and dementia

Some people with dementia gain weight. This could be because they forget they have already eaten, don’t recognise when they’re full, or have developed a sweet tooth – a particular issue for people with frontotemporal dementia.

If overeating or weight gain is an issue, you could try:

  • adding sweet condiments like ketchup or apple sauce to savoury food to satisfy sweet cravings
  • serving food in portions rather than bringing out the packet or whole dish
  • replacing high-calorie sweet foods with healthier alternatives such as fruit or low-calorie jelly
  • encouraging the person to be active, for example by walking, swimming, or doing seated exercises for people with mobility issues
  • storing food out of immediate sight so they aren’t constantly tempted
Sources of support

For any questions or concerns about eating and drinking with dementia, you can contact our free Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline on 0800 888 6678 (Monday-Friday 9am-9pm, Saturday-Sunday 9am-5pm, every day except 25th December) or email helpline@dementiauk.org.

You may also find these resources useful:

NHS: Eat well
nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/

British Dietetic Association (BDA) Nutrition and dementia resource
bda.uk.com/resource/nutrition-and-dementia.html

NHS: Malnutrition
nhs.uk/conditions/malnutrition/

Eating well with dementia: a carers’ guide
ndr-uk.org/item/19/Dementia/Eating-Well-with-Dementia.html

BDA Food Facts Sheets
bda.uk.com/food-health/food-facts.html

Dementia UK leaflet on dental health and Mouth care
dementiauk.org/mouth-care

The advice on this page has been reviewed and approved by the British Dietetic Association.

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