Dehydration is one of the biggest challenges facing anyone caring for someone who is older or living with dementia. Many older people are known to be chronically short of fluid in their bodies, leading to urinary tract infections and many other illnesses which can result in life-threatening situations that require urgent hospital treatment and intravenous fluids.
Good levels of hydration are vital to remain healthy and alert. Without them we can get confused and unresponsive, two symptoms of dementia, and also two reasons why it may be assumed that someone has dementia even when all they need is to increase their fluid intake. Understandably, in someone who is already known to have dementia, dehydration can make their dementia much worse. So how can you ensure that the person you are caring for remains hydrated and happy?
First of all consider the sort of drinks being offered. Have you tasted them personally? Are they pleasant? It may seem obvious, but it’s easy to ignore the fact that if what we are offering someone doesn’t taste nice it is unlikely to be welcomed. When a person has dementia they may not be able to articulate their dislike for something, so they will just leave it or spit it out, causing immense frustration for them and their carer(s).
Many care providers are hooked on giving their residents squash – water flavoured with concentrated and often additive-packed so-called ‘fruit’. This is about as far from real fruit juice as you can get – it is synthetic, can be metallic tasting and is full of preservatives that should be avoided. I certainly wouldn’t want to drink it and we banned squash from being given to my dad (as I wrote about here), favouring real fruit smoothies that were a perfect consistency and a delicious taste.
It is also important to consider how someone has always liked their drinks served. Are their long-standing personal preferences for milk, sugar or other additions being met in their hot drinks? Are they the right strength, and if they have always liked a particular brand, is that what you are making for them? Are their cold drinks the right flavour and style of drink?
Also think about the temperature of every beverage you serve and be mindful of seasonal preferences – not everyone wants a hot drink on a warm summer’s day. If the person is able to drink independently, make sure the cup, mug or glass is something that they can pick up easily – assess the weight, style of handle and possibility of spillage. Finally, is the receptacle reflective of their personal choice? I once knew a lady who had spent the previous 70+ years of her life drinking her tea only from a cup and saucer. When carers started giving her drinks in beakers or mugs she simply refused to pick them up.
If you’ve covered all of these permutations and drinks are still not being welcomed, it is worth considering if someone’s preferences have changed. If they are unable to articulate how they feel, you may never know if they are looking for something different. Try alternative tastes and styles of drinks, including things that they may never have had before or that feature stronger flavours (taste buds can begin to fail as we get older).
Also think about how food can contribute to hydration. For example fruit and vegetables often have a high water content, while items like dry potato, al dente pasta or rice could sap fluid levels. Compensate for this by creating sauced based meals and ensuring that what you are serving is sufficiently moist (ie creamy mash rather than dry, lumpy mash and pasta that is served with a moist sauce).
Try things like ice creams and yogurt (being mindful of the phlegm-producing effect of dairy products that I wrote about here), sorbets, jelly or ice lollies. All of these have a high fluid element and can be the sort of ‘treats’ that might tempt someone when a drink in a glass or mug won’t. Cold products can also have a numbing effect on the mouth and throat, which helps some people who are scared of the feeling of food or drinks in their mouth.
Other contributing factors to dehydration can be the development or progression of a swallowing problem (that I wrote about here), dental problems, and symptoms of advanced dementia like being unable to recognise the link between the drink in front of you and the need to pick it up and swallow the contents. There may be muscle weakness, pain in joints or even bruising that could make it uncomfortable for someone to pick up a drink, particularly a heavy one. There may also be fear attached to drinking – for example being worried something may be too hot or cold, or that it could be spilt. Drinks may also need thickening if someone has a swallowing problem, but this can have mixed success depending on the beverage and can (despite what manufacturers say) change the taste of the drink.
When someone has advanced dementia, and especially if they develop a swallowing problem, the only solution to keeping them hydrated could be spooning or syringing drinks. In my father’s case, spooning was very successful. Thickened drinks, slowly spooned, allowing him time to swallow between each spoonful worked very well for a long period. Some people prefer syringing, but this must be done slowly since a sudden injection of fluid into the mouth can be startling, unpleasant and potentially lead to aspiration.
Ultimately, the key to keeping someone hydrated can often be trial and error, creativity and perseverance. Your role in helping them to prevent dehydration is one of the most valuable and rewarding things you can do, and most importantly of all it is lifesaving.
Until next time…