Sometimes the elderly encounter problems when eating. They may not be able to physically handle the utensils. They may not understand how to start eating. They may not be able to continue feeding themselves after starting due to fatigue. When you help someone by feeding 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 provide assistance (i.e. have them hold the utensil and guide their actions), sit on the side they are using. Try to sit next to the person in such a way 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 standing. This makes the person feel rushed and contributes to a backward tilt of the head which can lead to 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 himself when possible. They may be able to take finger foods like French fries, bread, fruit slices, etc. Sandwiches are a great way to encourage self-feeding. Cream soups placed in coffee cups are also easy to handle. Some people can continue to feed themselves if you help them get started by placing your hand on top of their hand, picking up the food, and helping them put it in their mouths. This is particularly true for people with dementia.
Whenever possible, try to serve finger foods or foods that can be eaten with a spoon. Trying to switch between utensils 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 tends 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 introducing the most nutritious items first. Be careful to introduce plenty of liquids at the beginning of the meal or to take out a dessert before eating the main course. The elderly often fill up on liquids or sweets before they have had a chance to eat healthier foods. If there is something the person really doesn’t seem to like, try providing another article.
Pay close attention to the temperature of the food. When 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 a reduced sensation due to medical conditions. A good rule of thumb is to take no more than 45 minutes to eat. After so much time has passed, the food is no longer tasty and the person you are feeding is probably getting very exhausted. It is better to eat smaller meals more often or to provide snacks between meals. Eating should always be a pleasant experience.
Be sure to note any chewing or swallowing problems. These may be related to poorly fitting dentures, impaired mental status, or physical problems. These should be reported to a doctor quickly so that proper steps can be taken to ensure that the person can eat safely.