Feeding the elderly when they cannot feed themselves

Sometimes the elderly encounter problems when eating. They may not be able to physically handle the utensils. They may not be able to figure out how to start eating. They may not be able to continue feeding themselves after starting due to fatigue. When you are helping someone by feeding them or helping them feed themselves, there are several things to think about.

Always sit next to the person you are feeding. If you are right-handed, sit on your right side. If you are left-handed, sit on your left side. However, if you are working with them to assist them (ie, have them hold the utensil and guide their actions), sit on the side they are using. Try to sit next to the person so that you can still see them. Never sit in front of the person and feed him like a baby; this is degrading. Never feed a person while they are standing. This makes the person feel rushed and contributes to the head tilting back, which can cause suffocation. This is also true when giving someone a drink or pills. You should always be on the same level.

Encourage the person to feed themselves when possible. They may be able to pick up snacks like chips, bread, fruit slices, etc. Sandwiches are a great way to encourage self-feeding. Cream soups placed in coffee mugs are also easy to handle. Some people can continue to feed themselves if you help them get started by putting your hand on top of their hand, scooping out the food, and helping them get it into their mouths. This is particularly true for people who have dementia.

Whenever possible, try to serve foods that can be picked up with fingers or eaten with a spoon. Trying to switch from one utensil to another can be confusing and physically challenging. Look at the size of the utensils being used and make sure they are the correct 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 can’t tell you what they want, try presenting the most nutritious items first. Take care to introduce plenty of fluids at the beginning of the meal or to serve a dessert before the main course has been eaten. The elderly often fill up on liquids or sweets before they’ve had a chance to eat healthier foods. If there is something the person really doesn’t seem to like, try providing another item.

Pay close attention to the temperature of the food. If 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 sensitivity due to medical conditions. A good rule of thumb is to take no more than 45 minutes for a meal. After so long, the food is no longer tasty and the person you are feeding is probably very tired. It is better to feed smaller meals more frequently or to 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, impaired mental status, or physical problems. These should be reported to a doctor promptly so that appropriate steps can be taken to ensure the person can eat safely.

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