The Joy of Eating

Our family has always been into good food. Mom always cooked all our meals, even when working full time as a teacher. We ate healthy meals; learned that potatoes, bread and sodas were empty calories; and developed a great appreciation for a good hunk of steak and fresh caught seafood. Eating out was a special event only afforded to us once or twice a year. Fast foods were out of the question not only because of the cost but also because Mom labeled them ‘junk food’ from as young as I can remember.

As we moved on to live our individual adult lives, finances became a bit more manageable and Mom and Dad developed a new pass time, going out to eat to a nice restaurant every now and then. The outing provided entertainment, an escape from the never ending house chores and the boredom of retired life, and pure delight in savoring interesting, cooked-to-order favorite meals being served by nice people who also became part of their social life.

For a period of several years in Mom’s Alzheimer’s journey, she fixated on going out to dinner every night. Dad became quite concerned that this is all she looked forward to each day, not just because he couldn’t afford daily outings but also because his own level of interest and energy began to deteriorate the more obsessed she became with having him take her out. At the beginning, not much seemed different to the eyes of an outsider when at a restaurant. She seemed happy, chatty, ate well and was appreciative of the meals. Then little changes began to occur. She wouldn’t understand the menu and would ask Dad what she wanted to eat. Most of the time, he’d end up ordering the same dish for both of them. Then she wanted him to cut her meat. Then, with her loss of a sense of time, she started getting impatient with waiting for the food. Pleasantries went out the door, replaced by a demanding tone to Dad and/or the waiters, and unfiltered criticism when the meal didn’t meet her expectations. Dad started feeling embarrassed when taking her out and instead of enjoyment, the restaurant outings became yet another chore for him in the never ending battle to try to keep up his life somewhat normal and his wife and marriage happy.

In 2006, one year after Mom’s diagnosis, I made a commitment to go visit with Mom and Dad at least every three months. But for a few exceptions, I kept that commitment. I’ve watched Mom go from cooking all their meals at home to wanting to eat out all the time as an escape from what must feel like a prison to her since her mind can’t understand what’s going on in her life , to where we are today. Today, she still eats well and savors her favorite dishes of all times. However, 5 minutes after eating a full plate, she can’t remember that she ate at all and tells me that ‘she hasn’t eaten all day’. She then demands to eat again but her appetite isn’t really there so she doesn’t eat much nor does she enjoy the food. Many a day, she looks at the utensils on the table and has no clue what to do with them. She will then proceed to eat with her hands. Whether the meal is 5 stars, or a ham and cheese sandwich, she enjoys it the same way as long as you feed her immediately once she proclaims that she hasn’t eaten all day. We can no longer take her to a restaurant. It’s no fun for her which makes me very sad. And it’s really stressful for us. She expects immediate service. She has no hesitation in yelling to the waiter/waitress and ordering them around, or telling them ‘how bad the meal was, or how expensive, or how the service was not good enough’. Whether we buy her a fast food meal or the most expensive steak in the menu, she’s equally happy, or unhappy, depending on what her mood is (and we can’t predict this!). What used to be to her a most enjoyable experience is now just another way to keep herself from being bored to death or wanting to shut down and go to sleep. Her current reality makes me feel sad and helpless at the same time. She has lost ‘the joy of eating’. For anyone in our family, this is as good as saying that you have lost yourself. What a world of contradictions she lives in…

As her caretakers, here are some of the things we’ve learned that can bring back the joy of eating into her(his) moments in life:

  • Keep the meals small but increase the frequency
  • Do not fret over what to feed an Alzheimer’s patient. Simple meals with his/her favorite foods are best. They will thoroughly enjoy it as much as a fancy and elaborate meal.
  • Recognize and accept that your efforts to try and please will largely be dismissed, or at best, forgotten 5 minutes later. Manage your expectations for acknowledgement or praise (I am still struggling with this).
  • Don’t say No. Give him/her what they want when they want. Their bodies self-regulate and they won’t eat it all, if at all. Trying to deny them of a little pleasure in a moment in time will make you miserable and your patient upset. Life’s too short and some day you will wish you could just watch your loved one eat everything they want again — no constraints!
  • Finger foods work great. As the disease progresses it makes the patient feel independent and as if nothing has changed. Believe me, if they are happy you will be happy. There aren’t enough happy moments in their life. Treasure these moments. Make them happen.

As far as how to take care of yourself and keep everything that’s happening in perspective:

  • Celebrate the good days. Minimize dwelling on the bad days. Know that no matter how hard it may be for you to watch this process unveil, it is much harder for them.
  • Laugh whenever you can at whatever they do with food (or anything else). Laughter heals the soul and releases all that tension and hypervigilance that comes with the responsibilities of a caretaker.
  • Forgive yourself every day. For loosing your patience, or expecting more than they can give, or feeling angry or guilty for what you did or didn’t do for them.
  • Sleep and eat well, and plenty. Your body, mind and spirit can’t get enough fuel to give that loving care your loved one needs let alone care for yourself. This is not the moment to deprive yourself.

More than anything else, don’t let this phase in your loved one’s life define your memories of them. I try to constantly remind myself that even though Mom is loosing herself, and I am loosing her, she is still in her heart of hearts and in whatever neurons in her brain still connect, the woman who sat proud, elegant and refined at that special restaurant she could only go to once a year when she was my age and which gave her so much joy at the time. That joy is still here with her today even if just for a fleeting moment. Ten minutes, or ten seconds, it makes up for all the other times when she has lost the joy of eating… the joy of life.