Sophie MurrayIn this guest blog, Sophie Murray, a nutrition and hydration specialist for older people who works with Sunrise Senior Living, gives an insight into making dining as positive an experience as possible for those with memory conditions ahead of Resources to Remember, a national campaign which aims to transform the public’s outlook on dementia. 

Food is an incredibly emotive subject. From someone’s first taste of chocolate to the smells of a Sunday roast, we all have memories associated with different foods and it can act as a powerful trigger. That’s why food has such an important role to play for people living with memory loss – if it is served in the right way it can provide comfort and reassurance.

At Sunrise, we work hard to ensure each resident’s dining experience is a positive one. This requires a range of initiatives – as well as a flexible and innovative approach – many of which can easily be introduced by anyone caring for someone with a memory condition.  

Like everything in care, the most important thing about serving food is understanding each resident and taking a personal approach to their needs. Residents have their own habits, cultures, customs and preferences. This means observation by well-trained care staff who have an understanding of people’s backgrounds is crucial to help interpret actions. Our kitchen and care teams work closely together so they can share knowledge that helps residents during meal times.  

While in most instances it is best not to have a cluttered table when eating to avoid confusing residents, some people like having comforting items with them when they eat. One resident living with Alzheimer’s, for example, was not eating properly. The care team noticed she usually sat nursing two dolls, and encouraged the resident to bring them along to dinner. Now, she enjoys her meal alongside her dolls – taking pauses to ensure they are also well fed. Small initiatives like this can make a big difference to the overall wellbeing of residents, and this comes from a deep understanding of those we care for.    

No two experiences of dementia are the same. People’s needs change at different stages of their condition, so it’s crucial the kitchen team are fully aware of how the different stages of dementia might affect a resident’s appetite or ability to eat. 

Some residents may need more support to feed themselves than others, depending on how far their dementia has progressed. To help residents maintain independence, Sunrise staff encourage those who are able to feed themselves as far as possible. There are many ways we do this – one effective method is having team members dine at the same time as residents. This creates an inclusive atmosphere rather than ‘us and them’, as well as potentially acting as a prompt for those who may have forgotten how to use a knife and fork properly. This is an excellent way of breaking down barriers and ensuring residents feel at home in their surroundings.  

Creating the right environment is also crucial in ensuring residents have positive dining experiences.  Each of Sunrise’s communities has a Reminiscence dining area, which is specially designed to cater for residents living with dementia. These areas have more visual prompts as life memories are brought closer to surroundings. Music is also used to help create good feelings and memories. These areas are usually smaller too – for the ‘cozy’ factor. We also encourage families to come and eat with their relatives as often as possible, providing further reassurance and support.  

Research over the past few years has shown that people with dementia, about 60% of whom suffer visual impairment, often lose the ability to distinguish between colours including food against a plate or cutlery on a table. As a result, Sunrise recently launched a new set of crockery that frames food, making it easier for residents to recognise. It’s a small but significant step that will help improve the quality of life of those living with dementia. 

Dining has the potential to be a positive, fulfilling experience bringing back wonderful memories or feelings and it’s our role to do everything we can to ensure this is the case. Kind gestures, caring words and an unrushed approach may be what helps an individual eat when they have lost a strong sense of what food is in front of them, what environment is around them and what it tastes like.

About the author

Sophie Murray is a nutrition and hydration specialists for older people.  She works with Sunrise Senior Living, which uses a range of initiatives to support those living with forms of memory impairment across its 27 Sunrise communities and 15 Gracewell homes.