Why Do Dementia Patients Play With Their Food?

As we grow older, our bodies and minds undergo several changes. Dementia is a disease that can affect people in their later years, causing memory loss, difficulty with communication, and problems with thinking and reasoning. It is a challenging condition that can be hard for the patient and their loved ones to cope with. One behavior that is commonly observed in dementia patients is playing with their food. This behavior can be puzzling to those who do not understand it, but there are several reasons why dementia patients may engage in this behavior.

In this blog post, I will discuss why dementia patients play with their food. We will look at some of the possible causes of this behavior and offer some tips for caregivers who may be struggling to deal with it.

What is dementia?

a man with dementia staring at the wall

Dementia is a term used to describe a set of symptoms that affect memory, thinking, and social abilities. It is a progressive disease that gets worse over time and can eventually interfere with a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, but there are many other types as well.

Symptoms of dementia can vary from person to person, but they may include:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Poor judgment
  • Confusion
  • Mood changes
  • Personality changes
  • Inability to perform familiar tasks

Why do dementia patients play with their food?

Playing with food is a common behavior in dementia patients, but it can be hard to understand why they do it. There are several reasons why this behavior may occur, including:

Loss of motor skills

As dementia progresses, patients may lose their ability to perform fine motor skills. This can make it difficult for them to use utensils and other eating tools, leading them to play with their food instead.

Lack of appetite

Lack of appetite

Some dementia patients may have a reduced appetite, and playing with their food can be a way of stimulating their interest in eating.

Sensory stimulation

Playing with food can provide sensory stimulation, such as texture, color, and smell. Dementia patients may find this sensory experience comforting and enjoyable.

Cognitive stimulation

Playing with food can also provide cognitive stimulation, such as problem-solving and memory recall. Dementia patients may enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to manipulate their food.

Emotional regulation

Dementia patients may use playing with food as a way to regulate their emotions. It can be a comforting and familiar activity that helps them feel calm and relaxed.

How can caregivers deal with this behavior?

If you are caring for a dementia patient who is playing with their food, there are several strategies that you can use to deal with this behavior:

Make eating easier

Consider providing foods that are easy to eat, such as finger foods, or using utensils that are easier to handle, such as spoons with large handles.

Provide a calm environment

familiar eating environment

Create a calm and quiet environment for meals. Dementia patients can become easily overwhelmed, and a calm environment can help them focus on eating.

Offer assistance

Offer to help with eating if the patient is having difficulty. Be patient and supportive, and do not rush them.

Provide sensory stimulation

music therapy

Provide sensory stimulation in other ways, such as through music, aromatherapy, or tactile objects.

Use distraction

If the patient becomes fixated on playing with their food, try using distraction techniques to redirect their attention. For example, you could engage them in conversation or offer them a different activity to do.

Is playing with food a sign of dementia?

Playing with food is a behavior that is often associated with young children. However, it is not uncommon for older adults to engage in this behavior as well. In fact, some people may wonder whether playing with food is a sign of dementia.

Dementia is a condition that affects the brain and causes a decline in cognitive abilities. Symptoms of dementia can include memory loss, difficulty with language and communication, and changes in mood and behavior. While playing with food may be seen as a behavior that is out of the ordinary, it is not necessarily a sign of dementia.

There are many reasons why someone may play with their food. For some people, it may be a way to relieve stress or anxiety. For others, it may be a form of self-expression. In some cases, playing with food may be related to sensory processing issues or other neurological conditions.

It is important to note that playing with food is not always a harmless behavior. In some cases, it may be a sign of an underlying mental health condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or an eating disorder. If someone is playing with their food to the point where it is affecting their daily life, it may be a good idea to seek professional help.

When it comes to dementia, there are many other signs and symptoms to look out for. Some common signs of dementia include forgetfulness, confusion, and difficulty with everyday tasks. If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to speak with a healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause.

Why do dementia patients sometimes refuse to eat their food?

When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, it can be difficult to navigate the changes that come with the disease. One of the most common issues that caregivers face is when their loved one begins to refuse food. This behavior can be frustrating and worrisome, but it is important to understand that there are many reasons why dementia patients sometimes refuse to eat their food.

Loss of appetite is a common symptom of dementia, and it can be caused by a variety of factors. For example, the individual may experience a decreased sense of taste or smell, which can make food less appealing. They may also have difficulty swallowing, which can make eating uncomfortable or even painful. This can lead to a fear of choking, which may cause them to avoid eating altogether.

In some cases, the refusal to eat may be related to changes in the brain that are associated with dementia. For example, the individual may experience changes in their mood or behavior that make them less interested in food. They may also have difficulty with decision-making, which can make it hard for them to choose what they want to eat.

Another factor that can contribute to a loss of appetite in dementia patients is depression. Depression is a common co-occurring condition in individuals with dementia, and it can cause a lack of interest in food or other activities. If the individual is not getting enough social interaction, they may also lose interest in eating, which is often a social activity.

Caregivers need to work with healthcare professionals to determine the underlying cause of their loved one’s loss of appetite. If the individual is experiencing pain or discomfort while eating, there may be treatments that can help alleviate their symptoms. Similarly, if the individual is experiencing depression, they may benefit from counseling or medication.

When caring for a loved one with dementia, it is important to approach mealtime with patience and understanding. Try to create a comfortable and familiar environment that encourages the individual to eat. Serve meals at the same time each day, and offer small, frequent meals throughout the day rather than three large meals. 

Experiment with different types of food to find what the individual enjoys, and consider using brightly colored plates and utensils to make the meal more appealing.

Can playing with food be harmful to dementia patients?

One potential risk of playing with food for dementia patients is the risk of choking. Dementia can cause a range of issues with swallowing, including difficulty in controlling the muscles that are responsible for swallowing. 

When food is not chewed properly, it can become lodged in the throat, leading to choking. For this reason, it is important to ensure that food is cut into small pieces and that the individual is supervised during mealtime to prevent choking.

Another potential risk of playing with food for dementia patients is the risk of infection. When food is played with, it can come into contact with the individual’s hands, which may not be clean. 

This can lead to the spread of bacteria and other harmful pathogens, which can cause infections such as food poisoning or gastrointestinal infections. For this reason, it is important to encourage individuals with dementia to use utensils and wash their hands regularly.

In addition to the physical risks associated with playing with food, there are also emotional risks. Playing with food may be a sign of agitation or boredom, which can be frustrating for caregivers and other family members. It is important to address the underlying cause of the behavior and to provide activities that are engaging and stimulating for the individual. This can include activities such as puzzles, games, or music therapy.

It is important to note that playing with food is not necessarily harmful to all individuals with dementia. Some individuals may find it enjoyable or may use it as a way to stimulate their senses. However, it is important to monitor the behavior and to take steps to address any potential risks that may arise.

Is it normal for dementia patients to eat non-food items?

Eating non-food items, also known as pica, is a behavior that can occur in individuals with a range of conditions, including dementia. It is often associated with nutritional deficiencies or psychological distress. In individuals with dementia, pica may be related to changes in brain function, medication side effects, or other medical conditions.

One of the most common non-food items that individuals with dementia may eat is paper. This behavior can be dangerous, as paper can become lodged in the digestive system and cause a blockage. Other non-food items that individuals with dementia may eat include dirt, chalk, soap, and feces.

The reasons for this behavior are not always clear, but it is believed to be related to a combination of factors, including sensory changes, nutritional deficiencies, and changes in brain function. In some cases, eating non-food items may be a way for individuals with dementia to alleviate boredom or anxiety.

It is important for caregivers to monitor individuals with dementia for signs of pica and to take steps to prevent this behavior. This may include providing adequate nutrition, offering alternative activities to alleviate boredom, and ensuring that the individual’s environment is safe and free of potential hazards.

In some cases, medications may be prescribed to help manage this behavior. However, it is important to note that medication should only be used as a last resort and should be closely monitored by a healthcare professional.

It is also important to address any underlying psychological distress that may be contributing to the behavior. This may include counseling or therapy to help the individual cope with the challenges of dementia.

Does medication have any impact on a dementia patient’s eating behavior?

Many medications commonly prescribed to individuals with dementia can have an impact on appetite and eating behavior. For example, antipsychotic medications, which are often used to manage behavioral symptoms associated with dementia, can cause a decrease in appetite and a general lack of interest in food.

Other medications, such as antidepressants, may have the opposite effect and increase appetite. This can be a particular concern for individuals with dementia who may already be prone to overeating or making poor food choices.

In addition to changes in appetite, medication can also impact a dementia patient’s ability to swallow. Some medications can cause dry mouth, making it difficult to swallow food or increasing the risk of choking.

Caregivers need to be aware of the potential impact of medication on a dementia patient’s eating behavior. This may involve carefully monitoring the patient’s food intake and weight, as well as adjusting medication dosages or switching to alternative medications.

In some cases, medications may be prescribed specifically to improve a dementia patient’s appetite and eating behavior. For example, a medication called Megestrol acetate has been shown to increase appetite and improve weight gain in individuals with dementia.

It is important to note, however, that medication should only be used as part of a comprehensive approach to managing eating behavior in dementia patients. This may include providing a supportive eating environment, offering nutrient-dense foods, and encouraging physical activity.


Playing with food is a common behavior in dementia patients, and there are several reasons why it may occur. It can be a way of providing sensory and cognitive stimulation, regulating emotions, and stimulating the appetite. 

Caregivers can help deal with this behavior by making eating easier, providing a calm and supportive environment, offering assistance, providing sensory stimulation, and using distraction techniques.

If you are a caregiver for a dementia patient and have experience dealing with this behavior, I would love to hear your thoughts and insights in the comments section below. How did you manage this behavior, and what strategies worked best for you? 

I encourage everyone to engage in the conversation and share their experiences so that we can all learn from each other.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *