My grandmother was 90 when she died. She had dementia; “old timers” disease as she liked to call it. I felt the loss very deeply. Living 700 miles away, I was unable to be there to say good-bye. My only solace is that on her last night, her nurse had fed her chocolate ice cream, her favorite, at bedtime. Ice cream gone, the nurse stroked grandma’s hand and then, she passed. It was a sweet ending to a lovely life.

We all think of aging gracefully, enjoying the things we love up until the end. Dementia is the furthest thing from our thoughts. Sadly, 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. It’s a disease that’s terminal, even though it may take years to run its course. An estimated 71,000 die of dementia each year, a figure many experts think is understated.

Those with dementia experience difficulty eating and often lose the ability to eat altogether. Common signs eating is becoming a problem include:

  • Refusing to open their mouth
  • Refusing to chew
  • Refusing to swallow
  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing
  • Needs assistance with feeding
  • Needs prompting when eating
  • Has difficulty telling temperature of food
  • Eats very slowly

As dementia progresses and self-feeding is no longer an option, family members and caregivers face the reality of the person requiring to be fed. This can take a lot of work, as the person is slow, needs to be prompted and their eating is uncoordinated. Later in the course of the illness, problems with swallowing occur. The person can choke on food and lose the natural instinct to swallow. At this point, caregivers may suggest that it is safer for the person with dementia to be fed by a tube.

Feeding tubes pose their own set of challenges such as the dementia sufferer removing the tube and having to be medicated or restrained to keep the tube intact. A recent trend is to continue to hand feed, a new option in palliative care called “comfort feeding.” In a 2010 paper in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the authors argue that feeding tubes do not necessarily prolong life in patients with advanced dementia. Careful hand feeding, or comfort feeding, preserves the patient’s dignity and gives them the pleasure of social interaction associated with eating.

Thrive Ice Cream is served at a growing number of long-term nursing and rehabilitation facilities as a nutritious meal supplement or meal replacement. We recently heard from a one of these facilities that was having trouble feeding a dementia patient. They had an interesting experience where past memories of the pleasure of ice cream got a patient to eat.

Here’s what happened. They put a cup of Thrive Ice Cream in front of the patient. They then showed her an old-fashioned wooden ice cream spoon. The patient’s eyes lit up in recognition. She allowed herself to be fed – with great enjoyment – using the small wooden spoon. Her caregivers were thrilled to have found something that delivered nutrition that she could enjoy.

Dementia is difficult for loved ones and professional caregivers alike. As eating becomes physically difficult for patients and challenging for caregivers, our hope at Thrive Ice Cream is that our nutritious ice cream can make the process of eating/feeding easier and more enjoyable for everyone.

My grandma would have liked that.

For more information on Thrive or to order online, visit our website.

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