Help With Eating

Some ideas to consider when your loved one needs assistance with eating.

Most of us take our usual daily activities for granted. Everyday we choose what we want to eat, how much and when we want to eat it. It’s hard to give up our independence in these decisions.

It’s also difficult to accept help eating or being fed by another person. As caregivers, we must respect the other person’s dignity and encourage independence in this important activity of daily life.

Key Points

  • Treat him as an adult.
  • Give him choices about what to eat.
  • Never rush mealtime. Eating should be a pleasant activity. Appetite often improves when mealtime is relaxed and enjoyable. If possible, eat your own meal with the ill person from time to time.
  • Good nutrition and adequate fluids are essential for healing and will improve the person’s general well-being.
  • Don’t scold about spilling food or refusing to eat. If he refuses, find out why.
  • Sudden changes in eating or swallowing need to be checked by a doctor or other healthcare provider.

Fluids Are Essential

  • Make sure the person gets enough fluid every day to keep skin in good condition and to improve general health. Be aware that some medications can dehydrate a person, and an older person’s kidneys may need more fluid to function properly. Dehydration is a real danger for people who are ill or disabled, and it can easily be avoided.
  • Some caregivers believe that cutting back on liquids will reduce incontinence (accidents). In fact, too little liquid causes strong urine which can irritate the bladder and cause a urinary infection.
  • Everyone should take in 6-8 cups of liquid every day, unless otherwise instructed by your physician.
  • Offer drinks several times a day, such as water, decaffeinated coffee or tea, juice, or broth.
  • Include Jell-O, yogurt, pudding, sherbet, soup, and popsicles in the daily fluid count.
  • If it is difficult to swallow water or clear liquids, slightly thicker liquids like nectars, vegetable juice, cream soups, or milkshakes may be easier. Commercial thickening agents like Thickit are available.

When You’re Helping Someone Eat

  • Encourage independence.
  • Offer finger foods if it is difficult to use a fork and spoon. For instance, scrambled eggs and toast can be made into an egg sandwich.
  • Have the person in a sitting position whenever possible and keep his head slightly tilted forward. (Try swallowing with your head tilted back to see how hard it is.)
  • Make sure the person can see the food on the plate. Glasses should be worn if needed, and the color of the plate should contrast with the food.
  • Sit beside the person and cup your hand over his if he can hold the fork.
  • Sit on the strong side if the person had a stroke or similar condition.
  • Tell him what you’re doing: “I’m giving you potatoes now.”
  • Some people need to be reminded to chew or swallow.

If His Appetite Is Poor Or He’s Refusing To Eat

  • Turn off the TV and reduce other distractions, to help him focus on eating.
  • Avoid too many things on the plate or too-large portions if his appetite is poor.
  • Check for tooth or mouth pain or denture problems if the person suddenly loses interest in eating.

Helpful Gadgets

  • Bendable straws are a help when someone drinks in bed.
  • Thin, flat sponges will keep a plate from sliding on the table.
  • Divided plates or plates with rims make it easier to scoop food onto the utensil.
  • Larger handled utensils for weak or arthritic hands are available in health product catalogs from Sears or J. C. Penney. Some drugstores may also carry them.
  • Small blenders or baby-food grinders can be used right at the table and are easier to clean than large blenders.

If you have questions or concerns about someone’s eating, a Registered Dietitian is a wonderful resource. To find one, look in the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory under “Nutritionists”.

Originally written and published by the Aging and Adult Services Administration Department of Social and Health Services, State of Washington. Reprinted with permission.

Washington State Department of Social and Health Services

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