Maintaining proper nutrition after a dementia diagnosis

A spread of various foods, such as prawns, eggs, olives, steak, representing the Mediterranean diet

When my grandmother received a dementia diagnosis, we thought she would forget her phone number, her keys and eventually her name; we didn’t realise she would forget to eat. 

It wasn’t until the situation caused an emergency trip to the hospital that we realised extra support was needed. It led to the question, can someone with dementia remain nutritionally independent at home?

Proper nutrition leads to better brain function and a healthier life, so the same goes for somebody living with dementia. 

Assistant Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Canberra, Nathan D’Cunha, researches the link between nutrition and the cognitive decline of people with dementia. 

Although long-term nutritional research is difficult to conduct, especially on people with a degenerative disease, Nathan recommends the Mediterranean diet for those who live with dementia. 

Focusing on fresh foods such as fruit, vegetables, dairy, seafood, nuts and seeds, the Mediterranean diet is jam-packed full of nutrients. 

“Seafood has a lot of iodine, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for the brain. So making sure that, that person is having a healthy diet, can help to potentially reduce the cognitive decline,” Nathan said. 

The Mediterranean diet is a mixture of low-processed and whole foods from different countries around the Mediterranean Sea and is also recommended by Dementia Australia CEO, Maree McCabe AM. 

“It’s really important that we are able to support people to live well and to ensure that their nutritional needs are being met… And that their diet includes lots of vegetables, is low in saturated fats and low in salt,” Maree said.

While cooking with dementia can pose risks such as fires, undercooked foods or spoiled produce, there are ways where support services or carers can assist in creating a safe kitchen. 

“It can be good to get an occupational therapist in to the kitchen, to see if there can be any improvements made around the home, around using appliances, or utensils or labelling to help a person remember what they should be consuming,” Nathan said. 

While there are options for people with dementia who want to still cook for themselves, there are also many people who may no longer wish to be in the kitchen. Home delivery programs like Meals on Wheels and lite ‘n’ easy, are healthy alternatives who provide the ease of convenience. 

For a person living with dementia, mealtime can be a stressful situation where they may feel a lot of pressure or confusion. 

Playing music, sitting in a comfortable area or even having a meal of finger food can create a more relaxing eating experience for someone with dementia. 

If foods are the same colour as the crockery, there is a chance that someone with dementia may not be able to completely register what that food is and may avoid it. Coloured plates, relaxing spaces and regular routines are all ways to alleviate some stress for those living with dementia.

“It’s important that they enjoy the food and we have to not be too focused on it, If people don’t eat one meal, that’s okay,” said Maree.