Sometimes the elderly encounter problems when eating. They may be unable to physically manipulate utensils. They may be unable to understand how to get started eating. They may be unable to continue feeding themselves after starting because of fatigue. When you are helping someone by feeding them or helping them to feed themselves, there are several things to think about.
Always sit to the side of the person you are feeding. If you are right-handed, sit on their right side. If you are left-handed, sit on their left side. However, if you are working with them to provide assistance (i.e. having them hold the utensil and guiding their actions) sit on the side that they are using. Try to sit next to the person in such a way that they are still able to see you. Never sit in front of the person and feed them as if they were an infant – this is demeaning. Never feed a person while standing up. This makes the person feel rushed and contributes to a head tilt backwards that can cause choking. This is also true when giving a drink or pills to someone. You should always be on the same level.
Encourage the person to feed themselves when possible. They may be able to pick up finger foods such as french fries, bread, fruit slices, etc. Sandwiches are an excellent way to encourage self-feeding. Cream soups placed in coffee cups are also easy to handle. Some people may continue to feed themselves if you help them get started by putting your hand over the top of their hand, scooping the food, and helping them to get it to their mouth. This is particularly true of people who have dementia.
Whenever possible, try to serve foods that can either be picked up with the fingers or eaten with a spoon. Trying to switch back and forth between utensils can be confusing and physically challenging. Look at the size of the utensils that are being used and be sure that they are the right size. If the person has a tendency to take very large bites, try using a smaller spoon. If you are feeding someone, the spoon should only be half full.
Encourage the person to tell you what they would like. If they are unable to tell you what they want, try to present the more nutritious items first. Be careful about presenting a lot of liquids early in the meal or putting a dessert out before the main course has been eaten. The elderly often fill up on liquids or sweets before they have had a chance to eat healthier items. If there is something that the person really does not seem to like, try to provide another item.
Pay close attention to the temperature of the food. When in doubt, use a food thermometer to check. Keep in mind that the person you are feeding may not be able to tell you if something is wrong with the food. They may also have reduced sensation due to medical conditions. A good rule of thumb is to take no more than 45 minutes for a meal. After that much time has gone by, the food is no longer tasty and the person that you are feeding is probably getting very worn out. It is better to give smaller meals more frequently or provide snacks between meals. Eating should always be a pleasurable experience.
Be sure to note any problems with chewing or swallowing. These may be related to ill-fitting dentures, declining mental status, or physical problems. These should be reported to a physician quickly so that appropriate steps can be taken to insure that the person can eat safely.