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Coping with Dementia and Sensory Challenges: Smell and Taste

Most of us have experienced the loss of taste and smell when we have a bad head cold. Nothing smells or tastes quite right. Now, imagine your ability to remember and reason are also impaired. You might go ahead and eat rotting leftovers because they don't smell that bad, and you’d forgotten that you put them in the refrigerator weeks ago. Or, you might overbalance your diet with sweets, because sugar is the only thing you can still taste. In both cases health and safety become impaired.

How does dementia affect sense and smell?

Dementias, such as Alzheimer’s, can impair the areas of the brain that enable the sense of smell and taste and the ability of the individual to process them. When this occurs, eating and drinking can become less pleasurable. This is often the cause of unhealthy weight loss and malnutrition. If you are caring for a loved one with dementia, you will want to take extra precautions for safety, as well as find creative ways to keep them eating as healthy as possible.

Here are some tips from key sources, including The Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s Care Resource Center and our team at Anthem Memory Care.

  • Safeguard the surroundings. A loved one who has lost the ability to smell, along with cognitive decline, may no longer be able to make safe decisions and identify potential hazards.
    • Make sure old leftovers and out-of-code foods are promptly removed from the refrigerator.
    • Avoid the perils of gas leaks and fires, due to your loved one not being able to smell the gas or smoke. Make sure smoke and gas detectors are in place.
  • Conduct your own informal smell and taste tests with your loved one to determine what, if any, foods and drinks they still are able to taste and enjoy. Make a list of those foods and keep it updated.
  • From this list you can begin to build a healthy meal and snack plan that balances out any cravings for sugar and fatty foods (common with dementia) that might pose a health risk.
  • Get creative with food preparation. For example, try creating healthy shakes which include daily requirements of protein and vegetables. Ask your physician or dietitian for additional tips on creating balanced meals that your loved one will be able to eat.
  • Avoid potentially confusing combinations of food on the plate. Keep each dish simple.
  • Try to make your loved one’s meal time a sociable time. By joining them at the table and engaging in light conversation, the mealtime will be more pleasant and increase your loved one’s desire to eat along with you.

It is important to take the time to get to know your loved one’s sensory capabilities and how dementia has impacted one or more of them. By understanding this you can develop strategies to keep them safe, minimize negative reactions and optimize positive ones. Be aware that his or her sensory capabilities may change over time. Make it a point to keep on top of your loved one’s sensory responses and adjust your approach accordingly.

Above all, don’t give up! At Anthem Memory Care communities, our creative chefs enjoy finding new ways to prepare delicious and nutritious meals for our residents that they, along with family members, can enjoy. We make the effort with each resident to determine what foods will put a smile on his or her face.  With effort, patience and loving care, you can too.