“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” –Virginia Woolf
Eating is a necessary — and often, delightful — part of life. Whether you live at home or at an assisted living facility.
But for Grandpa? Hidden dangers can lurk around every corner of the plate. And choking isn’t the only hazard.
The room and table itself could be a problem.
Without proper memory care, navigating a dining room can become one of many potentially harmful activities for seniors as there are many opportunities to trip and fall.
In addition to all this, his sight, taste, muscles, and memory all change, making eating a potentially frustrating activity. Meaning Grandpa may not be getting the nutrition he needs.
Here are some ways to conquer “Dinner: Impossible.”
Frontida Assisted Living Facilities such as Willowgreen of Racine provide you with posts like this one to help you live your best life.
Setting the Ambience
1. Good Lighting:
“Colors seen by candlelight will not look the same by day.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Ever notice what restaurant guru Robert Irvine does when he’s resurrecting a failing diner?
Ups the lighting!
Candles sound like fun, but if you can’t see what you’re eating, it affects the taste.
And as Grandpa gets older,
- his night vision may decrease, so an already dark dining room adds insult to injury.
- his sense of smell may lessen, increasing his inability to identify the taste. (Think eating with a cold.)
You know that awful taste you get when you bite into a great apple but you’re thinking it’s an orange? Avoid that for Grandpa.
Let him see what he’s eating.
And if he’s suffering from memory loss, gently announce what’s on his plate. If he still remembers clock hands, you can tell where the food falls on the plate. (Potatoes at three o’clock, chicken at six, carrots at nine.) If that’s too hard, touch his right hand and tell him what food is near it. Then do the same with his left.
2. Prime Seating:
“For the best seat in the house, you’ll have to move the dog.”
Ah, the perfect quote for settling on the couch to watch a movie.
Not so much for dinner.
Comfy seats, those lounge ones where you sit back and prop up your feet, may be great for watching television, but they’re horrible for eating.
If at all possible, give Gramps an upright seat at that table.
- The very act of moving there is good for him, encouraging muscle movement and change of scenery.
- Sitting up straight rather than leaning back reduces choking.
- And if he struggles with dementia, the dinner table could help trigger memories of what he needs to do to eat.
You’ve heard it before. Studies show that all of us should spend more time sitting around the table for our meals. It helps us talk and connect. It’s the perfect time to ask questions and find out what makes each of us tick.
Grandpa is no different.
So set up his seat at the table. Jeopardy can wait till after dinner.
3. Dinner Jacket:
“Dress for success”
It’s important for Grandpa to feed himself as long as he can. Even if that means his hands are unsteady and he spills a little.
Wearing a bib can help with the mess, but who wants to wear plastic or vinyl around their neck? Especially if it makes him feel childish.
Instead, as they did in the good old days, let him dress for dinner:
- If putting on clothing isn’t difficult, grab an old washable jacket or button-up shirt to slip on over his clothes. It will catch any spills without making him change all his clothes later.
- Or try these stylish bonTops—easy on, easy off, and easy to wash, but they don’t look like bibs. (I especially like the dress shirt ones.)
- And while you’re at it, put out the red carpet for him: throw a sheet or waterproof tablecloth on the floor around his chair so he doesn’t have to worry if something drops to the rug. (NOTE: Just be careful he doesn’t trip on it when he leaves the table!)
Feeding himself may not be as easy as it once was, but with the right clothing, Grandpa can still feel dignified doing it.
Setting the Table
4. Place Settings to Use:
“You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food” –Paul Prudhomme
Ah, yes. Fingers are perfect utensils for many foods!
But when forks and spoons are necessary, sometimes a special utensil can make eating that good food easier.
- If Grandpa has arthritis or had a stroke and struggles to use his hands, thick-handled utensils could help him feed himself long after you thought possible.
- Look for heavier ones that won’t slide if he nudges them.
- Also, plates with a lip, like the scoop plate, can help Grandpa load his food on his spoon without accidentally pushing it off on the tablecloth. Or try this plate guard which can attach to regular plates.
- If he has dementia, he may struggle to separate the food from the plate. Pick up an assortment of plain colored plates so you can contrast the color of the food he’s eating. Serve spaghetti (white noodles with red sauce) on blue plates. Steak and broccoli on white plates. Chicken on green.…
Can’t find an assortment of colors? Perhaps try all blue since, other than blueberries, we don’t have a lot of blue foods.
5. Place Settings to Avoid:
“Eating rice cakes is like chewing on a foam coffee cup, only less filling.” –Dave Barry
Again, if Grandpa has Alzheimer’s, he may not recognize the difference between his food and that Styrofoam or paper plate — especially if he’s lost his sense of smell or taste.
That may mean he doesn’t eat his food.
Or it may mean he eats the plate!
- Don’t use Styrofoam or paper plates.
- Want to take him on a picnic? That’s a great idea! Just pack reusable plastic plates for the meal, not something that’s disposable.
- The same goes for silverware. Bring your regular flatware from home or pick up some reusable plastic forks and spoons. Something that he won’t accidentally bite into.
And just like plates can be confusing with dementia, so can tablecloths with patterns.
That cute table covering splattered with colorful dots? To him, they might look like food that he dropped off his plate. He’ll spend the whole meal trying to clean them up.
Remove anything from the table that could confuse him. Or at least push them out of reach:
- Placemats or tablecloths
- Fake fruit or flower arrangements
- Salt, pepper shakers, and other condiments
Of course, if Grandpa doesn’t have dementia, you can leave everything there so he can season his own food and enjoy the roses.
The point is to be sure he can eat well.
It’s Dinner Time
“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” Luciano Pavarotti
Yes, eating is an important part of our life, both nutritionally and socially. And it may look a little different for Grandpa now as he gets older, especially if he needs assisted living.
But a little planning can help him still enjoy it—while skipping some of the potential pitfalls.
Need a place where you can know your loved one is being taken care of at mealtime?
There are still a few more Cutthroat Kitchen dangers to avoid so Grandpa can enjoy his Chef’s Table.
Check out these other helpful posts to learn more about eating and dietary issues for seniors.
Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.