The Food Ritual
by Linda J. Austin
September, 1994, Atlanta, Georgia - a cheerful person plunked a tray on mom's bedside hospital table, then scurried from the room. To live, you must eat. Few of us want to face what comes when people stop eating. It is discouraging to make someone's favorite dish and see them eat only a few small bites. Mealtimes can become stressful for the caregiver and the patient. Each wants to please the other.
I took the cover off mom's plate, surprised to see a steak, baked potato and salad. Mom looked at me and said, "Linda you eat it, you haven't had lunch yet." I didn't eat it, neither did she. Couldn't have if she wanted to. It had been weeks since she had worn her false teeth. Her gums had shrunk and the sores in her mouth made wearing dentures impossible. I found a nurse, talked with the nutritionist and got some soft food that mom could swallow without chewing. Even in a hospital, a patient needs an advocate - a person who is willing to stand up and say, this is what the patient needs.
At home there are other ways of being an advocate - making mealtimes less stressful. Small portions on a large plate leave a lot of empty space. Use a smaller plate. Cut meats, vegies into bite-sized pieces - in the kitchen (you don't want to be cutting the patient's food after you put it on their table - that would be another reminder of what's happening). To keep the plate or dishes from slipping around on a bedside table or tray, put a wet cloth under the dish. If the silverware is "heavy" (I have carpal tunnel so weight is a factor when I hold a fork) purchase something light weight - in many stores you can purchase pieces of stainless without buying an entire set. Another place to check are second hand stores, Good Will and yard sales.
Glasses and coffee mugs are other things to consider when it comes to weight.
Try not to hover. If a person eats in bed, perhaps they would like you to join them for meals. If so, set up a small table for yourself so you and the patient can make eye contact. Meals are good times for making memories. Eating together is intimate. Try to carry on the routine as much as possible - some people watch the news while eating, some listen to music. As someone said, "just because everything is different, doesn't mean that anything has changed."
Certain drugs, therapies and medical conditions change the way food tastes. Sometimes the patient can't taste anything. Also be aware of the temperature of foods - some patients are unable to sense temperature and may be scalded by hot beverages.
When taking care of others and yourself remember: Eat when you are hungry, drink when you are thirsty, rest when you are tired.
Linda J. Austin writes from experience as a nursing assistance and a family caregiver. "When I was assigned my first hospice case, I found my place in life." Retired from several careers, Linda is studying creative art therapy.