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Ask the Hippie: Appetite Therapy that Makes ‘SENSE’


by Phyllis DeLaricheliere, MS


Nutrition is very important in maintaining healthy bodies, mind and spirit.  It is especially important for those battling a disease such as Alzheimer’s.  With dementia/Alzheimer’s, a lack of an appetite can be common in many cases.  Therefore, that makes mealtime even more important as patients need nutrition to keep their bodies and brains in shape to endure this journey.  A lack of nutrition can lead to weakness, loss of muscle strength, weight loss, and a state of lethargy. Common sense tells us that without the proper diet and exercise we are even more challenged to fight viruses and infections.  It’s the fuel the body needs to battle.

So why with so many, dementia/Alzheimer’s patients do we see this happening?  Depression could be one reason.  When people are depressed, which can be present with dementia, a lack of appetite follows. They might not be able to understand how to eat the food or perhaps they dislike the temperature or texture. Maybe they physically cannot eat what is given to them or are in dental pain. Did a medication change affect their appetite?  And finally, their lack of patience to sit for any length of time, or to even focus on the meal will affect their ability to eat.

I don’t need to tell you that this can also lead to frustration for the caregiver, who may look at mealtime for a chance to get a break, enjoy a meal with their loved one and feel like they are doing something right by keeping him or her fed.

What can we do?  Some simple things are: increasing physical activity; this will always assist in stimulating an appetite.  Make sure they are seeing their dentist and physician to eliminate any unnecessary discomfort.  Mealtime should have no time limit.  If they won’t finish because they have run out of patience/attention, give them encouragement and more time to come back to the table.  Reheat the food and leave it out, and see if they come back.  Perhaps make the meal mobile.  Instead of chicken on the plate, put it in a lettuce wrap or a pita with colorful veggies.  Mashed potatoes work great on top of an ice cream cone.  If they want to take a walk, why not make their meal to go?

But the BIG AHA moment here that I strongly encourage you to try is to use their senses. Have you ever heard the phrase we eat with our eyes first, our nose second and our mouth is the conduit that uses tastebuds to bring the experience of food full circle?

With the continued loss of memory, the brain relies more on our senses to explore the world.  This starts back at birth, when your right brain (aka “the Hippie”) is wired to explore the world through touch, taste, and smell.  The brain has this learned behavior and has not lost it with dementia.  

SMELL: The olfactory receptors of your brain (also known as the odorant receptors) detect smell and trigger impulses in your nerves that will transmit info to the brain. On many occasions, this information will also access our long-term memory and perhaps a “smell” will bring back an archived memory.  So, what does this have to do with food?

What if we cooked with a little more spice?  Spice, by the way, does not have to relate to “heat” or “spicy tasting,” but adds flavor for the brain to enjoy.  Let your loved ones smell spices before they eat.  Put it in their hand and let them look at it, touch it and smell it.  Food that smells good, stimulates the urge to eat.  

TASTE: As we grow older our taste buds change as well; they “dampen,” which is why sugar and salt are sought after because they penetrate those taste buds.  So, if they want dessert first you know why. And it’s ok.  Reminder, their Hippie side of their brain is actively engaged so, of course, they want cake before breakfast. Wouldn’t you?  

SIGHT: Make the food colorful and use colorful plates.  White bland chicken, with mashed potatoes and cauliflower on a white plate is not only difficult for patients to recognize but is not very appetizing.  Challenge yourself to make the plate colorful with food.  What a treat it will be for both of you!  Finally, if you can have them get involved with the preparation of the meal it gives them a sense of pride. They might eat along the way while prepping, and all the textures, activity and smells will stimulate their appetite. It’s a WIN WIN!

Bon Appetit

Phyllis DeLaricheliere MS, author/columnist/lecturer/consultant is on a mission to help others understand compassionately the journey of ALZ/dementia.  She is a welcomed educator for nursing programs clinical settings, as well as a vibrant guest speaker to general audiences.  She wants to introduce us to the HIPPIE PHILOSOPHY!      WEBSITE:  www.askthehippie.com to learn more.