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Dining, Sociability and Independence

Dining, Sociability and Independence

Aches, pain and reduced mobility are indeed a part of growing old. Failing eyesight and reduced mental reasoning may also present themselves in later years.

Once into retirement, physical duties and responsibilities begin to slow down and life can become more sedentary.

Whilst rushing off to work becomes a thing of the past and rising early becomes a pleasure rather than a chore, the task of nutrition remains equally important to a comfortable and healthy life.

It is said that 'you are what you eat' - sticking to sensible and healthy eating will help you maintain your weight, body condition and general health.

Good nutrition is important to physical health and mental balance.

The days of cooking and feeding a family may be behind you. Caring for yourself and maybe a partner is just as important in senior years as it was before.

What Does Healthy Eating Mean?

In order to eat healthily, there are some important facts to adhere to:-

  • don't eat too much
  • do not overdose on salt
  • eat all categories of food - carbohydrates, protein, fats, poultry, fish, fruit, vegetables and grain, as all contribute to your health but understand where each fall as regards to the amount needed to maintain good health
  • know that sugar is present in many of today's prepared foods e.g. baked beans, tomato sauce, cereals and bread and that sugar contributes significantly to weight gain
  • be aware of your fat intake and keep it low e.g. avoid fatty meat and too much fried food
  • avoid, or cut back, on fast foods e.g. fish and chips, pizzas, takeaways and foods with high sugar content.

Bad eating habits lead to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and many other illnesses, all of which can reduce quality of life and day-to-day functioning.

Good eating habits can keep discomfort and ill health at bay.

The Dining Experience

- Dining Alone

Dining alone can cause the individual to skip the importance of healthy eating, with the idea of 'why bother cooking for one'. This can lead to relying on fast foods, or simply picking at what's available in the fridge and cupboards.

Whilst age may bring infirmity in different forms, eating unhealthy foods can bring on many serious illnesses and affect strength and mood. Feeling alone and 'down' may lead to lack of exercise and unwanted weight gain.

- Shared Dining

Dining can be a social activity and much more fun that eating alone.

Shared dining has so many benefits, including:-

  • cooking becomes a pleasure, as well as an interest
  • being in the company of others creates social interaction, which can lift mood and lead to planning ahead
  • when cooking for two, food can work out cheaper
  • preparing food can be a shared activity and a form of exercise.

Preparing Food and Task Limitations

For the young or non-disabled person, preparing food is straightforward. Opening tins and jars, carrying pans of boiling water from oven to the worktop and reaching up or bending down for items needed (e.g. tins, sauces, pans, plates and bowls) can be performed with comparative ease.

For an elderly or disabled person, preparing food may raise questions and / or limitations. Such conditions which may need to be addressed may include:-

  • weakened grip and reduced strength- arthritis is a common condition which can lessen our ability with certain tasks. Lifting items such as pans full of water and cups of hot tea can become risky, the first for the danger of scalding or slipping on a wet floor and the second for burning oneself. Opening tins becomes a challenge.

Adapted aids include two-handled pans and cups, specially-designed tin openers and bottle and jar openers for those with weakened grip and reduced strength.

  • shaking hands and diminished dexterity - tremors caused by stress and anxiety and also by Parkinson's disease are conditions which may cause hands to shake. This will make tasks a little more difficult but will also affect confidence and self-esteem.

Weighted items can help reduce shaking and two-handled items can promote a stronger grip.

  • unsteady balance and walking difficulties - arthritis and general ageing may mean that support (e.g. a walking stick or walking frame) may be needed to stand upright and to move over short distances. A small kitchen may make manoeuvres difficult.

Making your kitchen ergonomically friendly will reduce the need to move from one place to another. For example, keep the worktops next to your oven and hob free from clutter, so that lifting food from the oven and moving pans from the hob can reach a worktop with minimal time and fuss.

  • reduced vision - different eye conditions change vision in different ways e.g. tunnel vision, blurred vision and discomfort with bright light. Old age also causes a need for spectacles, as short and long distance ability change focus. Reading recipes and following menu instructions won't be as straightforward as before the eye condition developed.

A magnifying glass may help with reading menus and food instructions. Having a spotlight directed towards a particular area (e.g. to the control buttons on the oven, microwave and hob) will make working in that area much more comfortable and safe.

  • reduced mental ability - dementia and Alzheimer's disease, lack of confidence and loss of short-term memory, may lead to being unable to remember the sequence of tasks to prepare food. All could lead to failure of the task in hand but could also cause danger (e.g. working with hot water and hot oil, as well as a hot oven and hob).

Come to terms with what you can still do for yourself and don't be afraid to ask for help in tasks which are no longer straightforward to you. Taking on the supportive role in the kitchen may prove to be more within the individual's abilities than taking on the main responsibility of 'cook'.

The Tasks of Eating and Drinking

Seniors may find motor movements for eating and drinking to be somewhat impaired, due to the ageing process e.g. weakened grip, shaking hands and diminished dexterity.

Visual changes may make eating and drinking feel like a challenge e.g. blurred vision (cataract issues) and failing eyesight (macular degeneration and glaucoma).

In order to find solutions to make the dining experience still bring pleasure, the distinct needs of the individual should be sought. For example, how does the person's new way of life affect how they manage the dining experience?

- Weakened Grip

Weakened grip, maybe through arthritis, will make holding cutlery and cups less safe than in earlier times.

Identifying fatter handles on cutlery, as well as Velcro straps which fasten to the hand and also pocket the cutlery item, can make cutlery more secure for the eating process.

- Shaking Hands and Diminished Dexterity

Shaking hands and diminished dexterity may benefit from two-handled cups, to give more confidence in lifting drinks.

Using cutlery with weighted handles can help reduce the intensity of tremors.

Weighted holders, which can be used for cutlery as well as toothbrushes and other items with handles, can also be purchased.

Eating with a spoon may not be the individual's ideal but will save spilling food before eating.

Adapted plates and bowls heighten the experience of dining independently.

A scooper plate is simply a plate with a lip on it, designed to prevent food from finding its way over the edge of the plate. Individual bumpers and guards can also be bought separately, to attach to average shaped plates and bowls.

Plates and bowls sometimes fidget on the table. They can be secured by a anti slip mat, gripper feet, or suction bases. For the individual with shaky movement, suction-based plates and bowls will prove the better experience.

- Reduced Vision

For the individual with changing vision, knowing where food is on a plate can severely impede the dining experience. Where does one scoop with a fork, or cut with a knife, will be a question which will come to mind.

Explaining where food is on the plate (e.g. mashed potato at four o'clock (the position of that food on the plate), meat at twelve and carrots at nine) is a life saver for those who wish to be independent.

Partitioned plates-cum-bowls can keep food items separate and help the person with the visual impairment to access the food item by pushing towards the partition wall.

- Reduced Mental Ability

Dementia and Alzheimer's disease can be so difficult on the individual and their partner or carer:-

  • eating habits change; food preferences may change and regular favourite food might be rejected
  • the function of eating may become slow and erratic
  • a reduced desire to eat may become a worry.

When supporting a person with eating, the encouragement and support given will be so individually tailored, as each individual with reduced mental ability will present themselves differently

Do what's best and what works for the person you are supporting and encourage as much independence as possible, via special eating aids (e.g. cutlery, cups, plates and bowls) available.


Being social is for most people a human need and instinct.

Age and illness can alter a person's ability to perform what were once easy and straightforward daily tasks.

Nutrition is a key player in maintaining fitness and health.

Understand what you are eating and where it falls as regards to the amount needed to maintain good health.

Dining can be a social activity and much more fun that eating alone.

With conditions which come with age (e.g. weakened frame, shakiness and reduced vision), all of which can affect the dining experience, seek suitable special aids to allow the person to maintain as much independence as possible.

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Sally Madeley-Carr, OT

Sally Madeley-Carr, OT

Sally qualified as an Occupational Therapist in 1996 and is a well-respected professional in the field of rehabilitation equipment and living aids. She has worked in private practice and within the NHS, developing a broad experience with adults and children. Click here for Sally's registration with the Health and Care Professions Council. The HCPC regulates health, psychological and social work professionals in the UK.

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