The eating environment for people with dementia

The environment in which a person with dementia eats can have a huge impact on the mealtime experiences – it can affect a person’s enjoyment of food and how much food they eat.

The eating environment needs to be calm and relaxed.

For many of us, the way food is presented and served, the surroundings and the company in which it is eaten all add to the satisfaction and enjoyment of eating a meal. This is equally important for a person with dementia: a good mealtime experience can have a positive impact on their health and sense of wellbeing.

You may also be interested to read the feature Kitchen and dining areas in the Dementia-friendly environments section.

Minimising distractions

Imagine you are in a restaurant with a group of friends and there is loud music playing or a live band playing close to your table. The restaurant is busy and the conversations around your table are loud. You are trying to make a choice from a long list of options on the menu as well as keep up with the conversation among the friends you are with.

The waiter is hovering and you are feeling pressure to choose your meal. It may be a challenge for you to concentrate on the conversation around you while choosing from the menu, but you will manage to make this choice and continue to converse with your friends despite everything else going on around you.

For a person with dementia a noisy environment can be confusing: it can make it difficult to concentrate and focus. So if you had dementia and you were in that noisy restaurant you may have just got up from the table and walked out as the music, conversation and waiter were all competing for your attention.

We need to be aware that people with dementia may struggle to concentrate at mealtimes if there are other distractions. The eating environment needs to be calm and relaxed. Switch off the television or turn down loud music to avoid distractions.

For more on these ideas, read the feature on Noise levels in the Dementia-friendly environments section.

Feeling comfortable

A person with dementia may not be comfortable eating with other people or in an unfamiliar environment. They may have difficulty eating food and this can only make feelings of embarrassment worse if they are sitting with others. As a result, they may leave food uneaten.

Allow a person to sit and eat in a place where they feel comfortable, either at a table or perhaps sitting with a tray on their lap on a comfortable chair.

Sight problems

It is important to be aware that some people with dementia may experience visual impairments that make it difficult to see the food in front of them. Sight difficulties may mean their perception of food – that is, the way they see the food – changes. For example, the shape or colour of the food may be confusing to them. Food should be presented colourfully and attractively. Always describe the food you are offering.

Avoid using patterned crockery – it can be confusing and distract focus from the food. Keep crockery plain and simple. Ensure there is significant contrast between the colour of the crockery and the food. For example, rice pudding in a white bowl may be difficult to see as there is poor contrast between the bowl and the rice. However, putting the rice pudding in a plain coloured bowl will help to ensure the food stands out and contrasts well with the bowl. Adding a topping such as strawberry jam further improves visual contrast.

Ensure the area in which a person with dementia eats is bright and well lit so they can see the food easily (see the Lighting feature in Dementia-friendly environments section).

Food memories

Food and images of food can also be used for promoting memories connected to food or as part of reminiscence-based activities. This can help stimulate discussion and interest in food and mealtimes by helping the person to reconnect with familiar food from their past. (See the feature in this section on ‘Activities based around food’).

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