Happier Holiday Meals

Happier holiday meals are possible. Your holiday meal experience doesn’t have to look like the one in the picture! 

I’ve already shared tips and tricks for making travel less stressful and helping you figure out where to celebrate. Now I’ve got a few more up my sleeve for ensuring your holiday meal goes as smoothly as humanly possible.

These strategies focus on how your parent or partner with dementia is likely to experience a family gathering, and how it impacts her ability to eat, drink, and socialize with the rest of the family. We’ll look at some common obstacles and how to overcome them.

As we go through each obstacle, note how many of these things a person living with dementia is responsible for, vs. how many we as care partners are responsible for.

It’s a little bit shocking, because we usually assume that a decline in eating and drinking is just due to disease progression.That definitely plays a role, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how much you can do to improve your parent or partner’s experience (and intake) with a few simple changes.

Call in The Good Stuff

If you’ve been working your buns off in the kitchen all day while shooing off the dog, not attending to your own needs, and ignoring your increasingly aching back, you may come across differently than you intend. 

Energy is contagious, so you can use yours to your advantage–if you take a moment to be aware of what you’re putting out there. Consciously call in “the good stuff”: respect, kindness, love, empathy, and compassion.

This lady doesn’t look like a fun dinner part, right? You’d never make this face intentionally, but if you’re exhausted and your blood sugar is low (or you suffer from Resting Cranky Face), you don’t look like someone anyone would like to sit next to.

Making mealtimes pleasurable is easier with a great approachOn the other hand, this lady makes a lovely dinner companion. She’s smiling, always a great way to approach.

She’s doing two other important things as well. She’s mirroring her companion’s body language. This offers him a subtle cue that he’s on the right track. Additionally, she’s modeling what to do so he doesn’t need to guess.

This may seem obvious to you, but it may not be to your person–especially with more people, noise, and distractions (and possibly a different environment) to navigate. Friendly, respectful “hints” such as modeling are welcome in such circumstances. They also allow your loved one to maintain their dignity while engaging with the rest of the family.


Don’t Be An Accidental Weirdo

When we hear the word “dementia,” we typically think “memory loss.” That’s true, but dementia also affects much more than memory.

Peripheral vision and hearing are also impacted. For that reason, approach from the front, make eye contact (at eye level), and use touch to gain attention.

approaching someone from behind can scare them

Note the difference in the women’s reaction to the man’s approach in the pictures above and below.

Looking at the pictures, it’s clear which way you want your loved one to look at you.

Approaching someone with hearing loss from the back, or someone with peripheral vision loss from the side, can startle or scare them. At that point, typically one of three things happens: 

  1. Screaming
  2. Hitting
  3. Shrinking away (may be accompanied by crying)

If that reaction confuses you, just imagine how confusing and scary it is for your person when a full-grown person suddenly is right next to them, intentions unknown. Often, we think we’re coming across like this:

We think we're coming across like this, but that may not be how our loved one sees us.

But what our loved one is seeing is this, instead:

If our approach is off, we can come across like a scary clown from "It" to our loved ones

That’s clearly a problem. And it also explains a lot, right? Wouldn’t you scream, hit, or cower if this thing suddenly turned up next to you?

It’s not that your parent or partner literally sees you like this; it’s that you can be perceived as a threat on par with this scary clown.


Let’s “Swap Glasses”


Our perception is another area where we can run into some trouble. With so much going on, it can be easy to forget our loved one is constantly striving to keep up with everything going on around her.  

We may be caught up in what we’re doing, thinking more about getting everyone to the table while the food’s still hot. For your parent or partner, it can be a dramatically different experience.

She’s trying to keep up with the conversation, who’s in the room, remember the right word, understand the question, figure out what she’s supposed to be doing, know who this kinda-sorta familiar person is who’s asking so many questions….

If we focus only on the tree in the foreground, we miss the medieval architecture in town and Lake Lucerne!

Looking at this picture of Lucerne, we could focus on the small tree in the foreground. That would tell us something, but we’d be missing a lot. What about the medieval architecture in town? What about the lake?

See what a small shift in your perception can reveal? It becomes easy to see how a holiday gathering plays out for your parent or partner.  Now it makes sense that if you were feeling overwhelmed and maybe a little anxious, concentrating on eating would be difficult, right?

Swapping glasses works in any situation, not just at holiday meals.


Are We Having Fun Yet?

Sometimes–definitely without meaning to–we make mealtimes unpleasant by setting up an obnoxious environment. There’s a whole bunch of stuff going on that will ultimately jump up and down on your parent or partner’s last nerve (Meltdown Alert!). 

This is what the rest of us–who aren’t cognitively impaired–call normal family life. Here’s where that little shift in perception comes in handy!

We're thinking it's fun to have the whole family together, but for a person with dementia, it can easily become overwhelming

What we’re thinking: It’s fun to have the whole family together!

Our thoughts are along the lines of I ate too much. I hope Sherri doesn’t blink during the picture again.

Our team’s gonna crush it at Pictionary. We made it a whole meal without fighting about politics? A Christmas miracle came early! There’s always room for pecan pie!

But if we swap glasses:

What our loved one’s thinking: UGH!

From our parent or partner’s point of view, it can be more like, Why’s everyone talking all at once?

Why’s no one talking to me? What should I do? Why are there so many people? How do I get out of here? Why’s there so much stuff? 

Align your idea of a good time with your loved one’s rather than attempting the other way around.


Liver + Onions = 100% Yuk!

Sometimes, we serve awful food. That’s always going to be a subjective call, of course, but it’s worth noting that dementia doesn’t change anyone’s lifelong food preferences.

Lifelong food preferences don't magically disappear with dementia 

I mention this because a few years ago, a lady at a support group expressed her concern about her husband’s extreme weight loss in a relatively short period of time. He was no longer able to tell her exactly what he expected her to make for dinner, as he had throughout their marriage.

Now, she finally felt free to make whatever she liked and felt she’d been deprived of during the last 50+ years. So she was serving up liver and onions two to three times a week, and her husband wasn’t touching it.

If you serve food you know for a fact your parent or partner has never liked, don’t expect him to eat it. It’s true our taste buds die off as we age, but not to that extreme. A better way to go is to make sure your loved one can see the food and it’s visually appealing, with plenty of spice.


Think Goldilocks

Other times, we get the basics wrong. If you picture Goldilocks, this is easy to fix. We don’t want “too” of anything; we’re aiming for just right.

We don't want "too" of anything; instead, we're aiming for "just right."

Is the food/beverage too hot? Too cold? Depending on where your person is in the process, meals can take up to two hours to complete. That’s normal.

Is the amount of food/beverage overwhelming (too much)? For people who grew up during the Depression (or were raised by people who did), leaving food on a plate is akin to a mortal sin. As a result, they’ll often pass on a plate of food–even if they’re hungry–if they think they won’t be able to finish it.

Is the chair in relation to the table too high? Too low? Too far? Too close? What about the utensils? Are there too many? Are they the right kind? Is the plate too big? The cup too hard to hold? Too hot to hold? Too slippery? Is the food too bland? Too spicy?

Lots of questions, yes, but they all have easy fixes.


Take “Not Interested” for An Answer

Finally, sometimes we don’t quite nail it on the timing; we’re trying to get our parent or partner to eat when he or she has no apparent interest.  

You love this person, so don't get sucked into an argument over food.I often caution about making sure blood sugar doesn’t spike or dip. This is important and worth paying attention to. Remember, though: You love this person, so be cool. Don’t get sucked into an argument. 

Equally, don’t let what someone expresses to you be your only guide.

My sister suffers from at least one migraine a month. She will deny she’s hungry, although eating will often stave off a full-blown migraine. Because dementia affects the entire brain, people will often say they aren’t hungry, even when you can personally verify it’s been 12 hours or more since they’ve eaten. Others will say they’re starving, and you can personally verify it’s been 12 minutes since their last meal.

In either case, it’s true–because that’s the signal their brain is sending.

You can try offering small snacks throughout the day. People will often eat those more willingly, especially when they’re not expected to sit at the table to do so. Going a different direction, you can enlist your loved one’s help with setting and/or clearing the table. This may create a desire to be part of the action.

Depending on the issue specific to your loved one, try offering food at a different time than usual; cut down on snacks throughout the day; hand your parent or partner a plate rather than asking if they’d like anything to eat; serve finger foods; and increase physical movement throughout the day.

The main thing, though? Just enjoy your time together. Food issues will come and go; time only goes…it never comes back.


3 More “Tricks”

Download these mealtime scripts to get the best response, and use this checklist to isolate the cause of problems

And as with anything else dementia-related, just ooze respect, kindness, and love in every interaction, bring empathy and compassion, shift your perception enough so you can see your loved one’s, and use a whole bunch of patience. Do that, and you’ll be off to an awesome start.

Happy holidays, bon appetit, and sláinte!


Christy Turner is a speaker and consultant, founder of DementiaSherpa.com, creator of the program What To Do When Your Parent or Partner Has Dementia, and a featured guest on the The Alzheimer’s Podcast.  Her segment “Guiding You Through Rough Terrain with The Dementia Sherpa” runs every other Tuesday. Christy has enjoyed the privilege of working with 1,123 people living with dementia and their families.