When I was a kid, my sisters and I used to call Dad the "human garbage disposal" because he was happy to finish off anything we had left on our plates.
He's always had a healthy appetite, but since my mom died seven months ago, Alzheimer's disease has begun to erode many aspects of Dad's daily functioning, including his hunger and enjoyment of food.
When Dad refuses ice cream, true panic fills my heart. If he doesn't want his favorites, how can I entice him to eat healthy foods? We now have to coax him to eat every bite, one of the caregiving tasks that challenges my patience the most.
Don't get me wrong - I'm grateful for every bit of food or drink Dad has now. But I sometimes find myself daydreaming about those days, just months ago, when he would devour a big salad, soup, large helping of meat and vegetables and still be hungry for a piece of pie and ice cream.
Every now and then, I break down and get him a juicy cheeseburger and fries or a dark chocolate truffle. He sometimes eats that with gusto, which I feel makes it worth the nutritional risk. At the age of 90, Dad deserves to eat what he wants, I figure, and there may come a day when he can't handle solid foods at all. And besides, they say dark chocolate may have health benefits!
Here are just a few of the ways I ensure that my dad and I eat as many healthy foods as possible:
- I cook with herbs and spices that boost flavor and provide antioxidants, including cloves, oregano, rosemary, thyme, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric. I also sprinkle ground cinnamon in coffee or tea, on Dad's ice cream, on sweet potatoes and in soups. Dad's taste buds aren't as sensitive as they were and he seems to like stronger flavors, including some cayenne pepper or even a little hot sauce.
- We eat at least one dark green or cruciferous veggie a day, such as kale, spinach or brussels sprouts, and I try to buy organic. Dad has a hard time chewing stems and raw green leafy vegetables, so we often sauté spinach or baby kale and mix it into eggs, spaghetti sauce or soups. A few seconds in the food processor makes brussels sprouts easier for him to eat. Dad is the tomato king, so we also mix tomatoes into many dishes.
- Green tea and coffee may be helpful in reducing cognitive decline, so Dad and I enjoy a "cuppa" daily, and lately I've been using matcha green tea - a powdered form that is easy to mix with coffee or other hot drinks.
- Homemade smoothies (we call them milkshakes) are a great way to give Dad nutrient-rich foods, even some he normally has trouble chewing, like kale. We include protein powder, spices, fruit (watching the sugar content) and a milk substitute like coconut milk or almond milk. We find he really just wants two big meals a day (brunch, because he sleeps late, and dinner) so a smoothie is a good afternoon snack and costs less than packaged nutritional drinks or shakes. I also bought a juicer to offer him fresh fruit and vegetable juices. He seems to drink more when using a straw, although we monitor him closely for any signs of choking.
- Coconut oil is being studied for its effect on the Alzheimer's brain - and Dad loves the flavor - so we cook with it and add some to his coffee and smoothies.
- Prunes are a good source of polyphenols, which help protect against bone loss. Dad likes warm stewed prunes, even on ice cream. Blueberries are another good source of phytonutrients with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties; I keep frozen organic blueberries to use in smoothies and desserts when fresh isn't in season. The fiber also seems to be good for him.
- Fish may be a great source of polyunsaturated fat, which is said to be important for the brain. Dad isn't a big fan of fish, so we supplement with lemon-flavored fish oil. But we've also found that when we add a tasty sauce, or some tomatoes, or make salmon patties mixed with quinoa, herbs and garlic, he doesn't seem to notice it's fish.
- Eating sandwiches is sometimes easier for Dad, but I make sure they include some sauteed spinach and other healthy foods as much as possible.
- Dad's visual impairment on top of his cognitive decline makes the mechanics of eating a challenge. He always uses a soup spoon now and I purchased a plate with a curved edge that makes scooping the food easier and prevents food from spilling onto the table.
How do you deal with eating and nutrition as you care for your loved ones? Let me know in the comments section below and/or share in the AARP Online Community Caregiving group.
Amy Goyer is AARP's family, caregiving and multigenerational issues expert; she spends most of her time in Phoenix, where she is caring for her dad, who lives with her. She is the author of AARP's Juggling Work and Caregiving. Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer and on Facebook.