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Aging in Place at Home: The Definitive Guide Part 15


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Eating

Eating Banner

Command over fine motor skills, particularly involving the hands and fingers, decreases with age. Consequently, older adults often find themselves unable to carry out the precise movements that make up eating like maneuvering a fork to pick up food, holding a spoonful of soup without spilling, and keeping food from falling off the plate edge.

This portion of the guide showcases assistive devices that bring independence back to Seniors who struggle with eating on their own.


Non-slip placemat


Purpose

Non-slip placemats help keep dishes, cups, and utensils from sliding around on the dining table. Placemats also protect dining tables from ring stains caused by cup condensation, heat stains caused by hot dishes, discoloring stains from food, and nicks caused by sharp utensils.


Must-have Features

Food-safe material – A placemat should be made of F.D.A.-approved, food-safe material since users place utensils, plates, and possible even the food itself on it. Confirm with the manufacturer that the placemat does not contain or release harmful substances. The product should be B.P.A.-free, P.V.C.-free, lead-free, latex-free, and free of phthalates.
Non-slip placemat


Features to consider

Dishwasher safe – Most of the time placemats need nothing more than a post-meal wipe-down to be clean enough for the next use. When the placemat gets particularly sticky and messy, though, users may find it easier to simply throw it in the dishwasher. Generally, cleaning by dishwashing is overkill, but finding a placemat that is dishwasher safe may be worthwhile for the few instances that a thorough cleaning is truly necessary.


Size – Consider the dimensions of the dining table to ensure that the placemats are proportional to the spaces where they will be used. Also, lay out a typical meal place setting and measure how big the placemat must be to accommodate all the dishes and utensils. Make sure the placemats fit the table and place settings correctly.


Heat-resistant – Hot soups and warm plates can put off enough heat to damage tables, so a placemat with heat-resistant qualities can help to reduce the amount of heat that reaches the table underneath.

Silicone trivetPlacemats typically cannot handle pots and dishes that are still hot from the stovetop and oven, though. For very hot cookware, use silicone trivets that are made specifically to handle high heat.


Features to avoid

Porous – Placemats are supposed to protect the table from food and liquid spills that might occur while eating.

Woven placematManufacturers have produced loosely woven placemats that lean more towards form than function, though.

Placemats should be made of a solid material that does not allow anything to pass through. Furthermore, the placemat should not have grooves or crevices where food crumbs can collect. Stick with a simple, flat, non-porous placemat and skip the other less useful options.


What to know before buying

If the right type of food or liquid is given enough time to set, placemats of all types of materials are susceptible to stains. For this reason, it is important to quickly clean placemats after spills and dinner to prevent permanent discoloration.


Look for reversible placemats that can be used on both sides. If one side of the placemat happens to get badly stained, then users can simply flip the placemat over and use the other side for the top.


Recommended supplementary products and home modifications


Assistive eating utensils


Purpose

The general effects of aging on a person’s dexterity, grip strength, and fine motor movement can make it difficult to hold onto cutlery and use them with precision. Furthermore, conditions like arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, peripheral neuropathy, Parkinson’s disease, and many others can diminish a user’s ability to properly use flatware.

Those who struggle with serving themselves may find that assistive eating utensils enable them to maintain their independence and lift their spirits.


Features to consider

Utensils with built-up handlesLarge grip – Those with nerve damage, numbness, or stiffness in their hands and fingers may have trouble holding eating utensils. Specially made large grip eating utensils increase the surface area for a user’s hand to grasp. This helps in two ways.

First, users do not need to make as tight of a fist to secure the cutlery. Second, there is a greater degree of contact between a user’s hand and the grip, which provides better tactile recognition and helps those who have a diminished sense of touch. Large grip utensils are available as both weighted and non-weighted.


Weighted – Arm and hand trembling can make it challenging for users to maneuver flatware. The added resistance of weighted utensils can stabilize shaky hands and give more control to users while eating. Weighted utensils are available with large or standard grip handles.


Bendable – Those who have difficulty with turning their hands and wrists at the proper angle while using cutlery to scoop up and redirect food may benefit from bendable utensils. This special utensil allows users to custom-bend the shaft in a way that helps reduce the degree to which they would otherwise have to manually adjust the angle.

Bendable spoonSince they are meant to hold their shape once bent, the utensils typically require significant hand strength to bend. In fact, it may be necessary to wrap the end of the utensil in a cloth or some other protective material and bend the shaft with a tool such as pipe wrench pliers. Plan to have a capable friend or relative available after purchasing the utensils who can bend the cutlery at the appropriate angle.

After curving the utensil for the first time, the user should test it to see if it requires additional adjustment. Continue to tweak and then test until the utensil fits the user best.

Bendable utensils are only available with large grips and can be weighted or non-weighted.


Dishwasher safe – As an added convenience, look for assistive eating utensils that can be cleaned in the dishwasher. Manual washing only means more work for a user’s hands and wrists. Most assistive eating utensils are dishwasher safe, so users shouldn’t have a problem finding a set of flatware with this feature included.


Custom foam tubing grip – Modifying the existing cutlery with foam tubing grip can be a viable alternative to buying completely new assistive utensils. This will only work if users do not need curved utensils since the existing flatware likely cannot be bent as needed. Foam tubing grip typically comes in long pieces that can be cut down to the appropriate size.

Closed cell foam tubing for eating utensil gripsSimply measure the utensil’s shaft length and cut a piece of tubing that matches. Foam tubing is available with different inside diameters, so contact the retailer or manufacturer before ordering to determine the correct inside diameter size for utensils.

Sliding the tubing grip over the utensil handle can be difficult, so users should arrange to have a family member or friend apply the foam grip.

It is important to find foam tubing that is dishwasher safe. Removing the grips before washing and replacing them before use is a hassle and infeasible for most users; it is much better to apply the grips once and leave them on the utensils permanently.

Finally, make sure the foam material is latex-free so it doesn’t cause any allergic reactions.


What to know before buying

Assistive eating utensils can be very expensive, so those with financial constraints must decide how many utensils makes sense to purchase. The fewer the number of utensils, the more users must run the dishwasher or wash by hand so that the utensils are available for the next meal. Using foam tubing grip with the current cutlery is more economical on a per utensil basis.


Before purchasing large grip utensils, verify that they can fit where intended to be kept. Bear in mind the total number of new large grip utensils to be purchased and try to estimate how much space is necessary to store them. If more storage space is needed, then be sure to identify an accessible location. Follow this same process for foam tubing grips; although foam tubing grips are typically slightly smaller than large grip utensils, they still take up more space than a standard set of cutlery.


Recommended supplementary products and home modifications


Rocker knife


Purpose

Rocker knives utilize a swiveling, saw-like movement to cut through food. This rocking motion reduces the amount of hand strength that would normally be needed to cut food with a conventional knife. Furthermore, a rocker knife can cut on its own without the assistance of a separate utensil to hold the food in place; this makes rocker knives ideal for those who only have one functional hand.


Features to consider

Vertical grip – An upright grip is the most ergonomic way to hold and use a rocker knife. Strain on the wrist is virtually eliminated because users keep their hands in a neutral position. Rocker knives with a vertical grip are intended to be used while seated at a dining table.

Using a vertical grip rocker knife while standing may be difficult, particularly for taller users, since the appropriate hand position is suited for a lower, seated height.


Grip type – Rocker knives are available in a built-up grip as well as a standard grip that is the same as conventional knives. The built-up handle is ideal for those who have trouble with grasping smaller handles.

Rocker knife with solid handle
Compared to
Rocker knife with built-up handle


Serrated edgeSerrated edge – To help the rocker knife bite into food, look for one with a serrated edge. Breads, cooked meats, and soft fruits and vegetables are all much easier to cut with a knife that has a serrated edge. While a serrated edge is not a make or break feature, it is very highly recommended.


Dishwasher safe – It is best to use a rocker knife that is dishwasher safe to avoid the risk of accidental cuts that may occur during hand washing. If the rocker knife is not dishwasher safe, though, use a long-handled dish brush for easier and safer dishwashing by hand.


Features to avoid

T grip – T grip rocker knives are helpful when used to prepare food on a cutting board while standing at a kitchen counter.

Rocker knife with T handleFor eating a meal while seated at a table, however, T grip rocker knives require users to lift their hands and arms at an uncomfortable height.

Swiveling the rocker knife in this raised position involves much more physical strength and puts stress on the shoulder. Avoid using a T grip knife for cutting food while seated at a dining table.


What to know before buying

Since a rocker knife saws back and forth, it is important to cut on plates that are fairly flat as opposed to plates that curve up at the edge to avoid the plate from tipping. If the existing plates have tall edges, then consider replacing them with flatter plates.


The dining table and chairs should be at the ideal height for the user. A dining set that is positioned at the proper height makes eating easier.


Recommended supplementary products and home modifications


Scoop plate


Purpose

A scoop plate features a raised lip around its edges to give users a surface to trap food up against; this makes scooping up the food with an eating utensil much easier. The high rim also helps prevent food from being accidentally knocked off of the plate. Those with limited dexterity, unsteady hands, and the use of only one hand stand to benefit the most from a scoop plate.


Must-have Features

Food-safe material – Some manufacturers still produce plates and other food-related items with outdated materials that have since been found to be harmful or potentially harmful. Only purchase scoop plates that are made of F.D.A.-approved, food-safe material. Verify with the manufacturer that scoop plates made of plastic is B.P.A.-free, P.V.C.-free, and free of phthalates.


Scoop plate with low front and high backLow front, high back – All scoop plates have high backs that allow users to trap food with their utensils, but not all scoop plates have low rims at the opposite side of the plate.

This low front is a necessary feature because it gives users space to adjust the utensil angle and maneuver their hands as needed to scoop up the food.

A high rim around the entire plate limits the various approaches users may need to take when trying to eat.


Features to consider

Skid resistant bottom – Scoop plates should not slide away from users when utensils are pushed against the raised lip. Try to find a scoop plate that includes a non-slip bottom so it doesn’t slide around on the table.

If a skid resistant bottom isn’t available, then consider placing a non-slip placemat on the table underneath the scoop plate to help keep the plate stationary while in use.


Microwavable – A scoop plate that is microwave-safe is an added convenience worth considering. Verify with the manufacturer or retailer that the scoop plate is actually approved by the F.D.A. to be microwave-safe. A microwavable scoop plate should be stamped with a sign or language that explicitly indicates that it is microwave-safe.


Dishwasher safe – Try to find scoop plates that are dishwasher safe to avoid the time and effort needed to wash them by hand. Dishwasher safe scoop plates will bear a symbol or certain language that lets users know that the plates can be cleaned in the dishwasher.

Some scoop plates may specify that they should be placed on the top rack of the dishwasher. If it is unclear whether a specific scoop plate is dishwasher safe, contact the manufacturer or retailer to confirm before making a purchase.


Features to avoid

Scoop plate - extended lipExtended plate lip – Scoop plates with a lip that significantly protrudes outward can be prone to tipping. A user’s hand can easily catch on an expansive rim like this and accidentally flip up the plate. Avoid scoop plates with an extended lip, and choose a plate with a tall rim that doesn’t get in the user’s way.


What to know before buying

Due to their odd shape, fitting scoop plates in a dishwasher may involve some finagling. It is very likely that fewer scoop plates will fit in the dishwasher than conventional plates, so washing cycles may need to be run more often.


The higher profile of scoop plates makes them take up more storage space, so fewer scoop plates will fit in a cabinet than conventional plates. Be sure to consider the added height of scoop plates when considering how many to purchase and where they will be kept.


Recommended supplementary products and home modifications


Plate guard


Purpose

A plate guard attaches onto the edge of a plate to provide a raised back that allows users to more easily scoop up food with an eating utensil by trapping the food between the plate guard and the utensil. Plate guards also protect food from accidentally falling off the edge of the plate.

Users who can only eat with one hand, have palsied hands, or have diminished coordination should consider plate guards. The purposes of plate guards are the same as scoop plates, but plate guards attach onto existing plates whereas scoop plates completely replace existing conventional plates.


Must-have Features

Stainless steel plate guardStainless steel – Plate guards made with a thin band of stainless steel allow users to stretch the guard to fit onto plates of various sizes. Stainless steel is strong enough to stretch without breaking and can withstand a lot of abuse. The most flexible and durable plate guards are stainless steel.


Plate guard with latchesLatch attachment – The best attachment method to keep plate guards in place is with latches. These latches warp around the rim of the plate and act as hooks.

Be sure to find a plate guard that uses latch attachment.


Features to consider

Dishwasher safe – To expedite clean up, look for a plate guard that is dishwasher safe. This will save the user the time and effort it takes to wash the plate guards by hand.


Features to avoid

Plastic – When it comes to plate guards, those made of plastic are actually less flexible than their stainless steel counterparts. Stretching the plastic plate guard to set it on the plate can actually cause it to snap because of its rigidity. Furthermore, plastic doesn’t hold up as well as stainless steel: drops and other accidents can break plastic plate guards.

Avoid plastic plate guards and stick with stainless steel.


Pressure attachment plate guardPressure attachment – Some guards use pressure to squeeze and hold onto plates. Basically, the plate guard is made to be inflexible so that stretching it onto the plate creates enough tension to keep the guard in place.

Unfortunately, these pressure attachment guards are known to fly off the plate unexpectedly. And users can accidentally knock off the plate guard by pushing too hard when wedging food up against it.

Plate guards with latches work much better; avoid plate guards that use pressure to attach to the plate.


What to know before buying

Measure the diameter of the existing plates and make sure the guard can fit. Plate guards can usually work with plates that are between 8 to 11 inches in diameter. Always verify the size of plates with which the guards are compatible before purchasing.


Recommended supplementary products and home modifications


Dual handled mug


Purpose

A dual handled mug allows users to drink hot beverages with both hands. Those with weak hands, arthritis, minor hand trembling, or otherwise compromised dexterity will find that the two handles provide the added stability needed to hold onto mugs. The security that a dual handled mug offers helps protect users from spilling hot drinks and potentially injuring themselves.


Must-have Features

Dual handled mugCeramic – Ceramic insulates heat well. This insulation quality protects users’ hands from burning when holding the mug by the dual handles.

Mugs made of other materials such as glass, metal, and plastic do not offer as much protection from the heat.


Microwave safe – Since the purpose of a mug is to hold hot drinks, then it is important that the dual handled mug be microwavable. This not only guarantees that drinks can be quickly and safely reheated, but it also reassures users that the mug is capable of withstanding the heat of the drinks for which it will become a vessel.


Features to consider

Dishwasher safe – The convenience of cleaning the mug in a dishwasher saves a user’s time and energy. Any microwave-safe dual handled mug should, by nature, also be safe for the dishwasher.


Features to avoid

Plastic dual handled mugPlastic – Even if the mug is considered microwave safe, dual handled mugs made of plastic can craze and crack from being microwaved. Simply carrying the hot liquids, without being microwaved, can also cause this crazing.

Avoid plastic mugs altogether and stick with ceramic.


What to know before buying

This kind of ceramic dual handled mug is intended for use while sitting at a table rather than while walking about or on the go. Users who intend to take a hot drink with them throughout the home should use an insulated travel mug with a handle.

The travel mug should not be hot to the touch and large enough to allow the user to hold with both hands, if necessary.


Recommended supplementary products and home modifications


Universal cuff


Purpose

A universal cuff is a strap that empowers those with diminished, and even no, grip strength to hold onto and use eating utensils. When a cuff attaches to an eating utensil, it provides a handle through which users can insert their hands to implement the utensil. A universal cuff can actually help users employ any number of tools or items beyond just eating utensils; consider its possibilities in gardening, cleaning, and personal grooming applications.


Must-have Features

Cuff attached to utensil

The cuff straps onto the utensil. Users slip their hand in and out of the cuff.

Utensil attachment – The cuff should attach onto the utensil itself rather than onto the user’s hand. In this way, the cuff can serve as a permanent handle that users can always grab hold of when implementing that particular utensil.

There’s no need to slip on and off before and after each use: the utensil already has the cuff in place and is ready to use at any moment.


Dishwasher safe – Since cuffs become part of the utensils, they should be dishwasher safe. This eliminates the need to remove the cuff when the utensil must be washed and then replacing the cuff onto the utensil after it is clean.

Removing and reapplying cuffs can be especially difficult for users because it requires dexterity and hand strength that the do not possess. Therefore, it is necessary that the cuffs be safe for the dishwasher.


Adjustable fit – The quality that makes a cuff “universal” is an adjustable fit that can accommodate a variety of hand and utensil sizes. Look for silicone cuffs that can stretch to secure a tight fit on a items of various sizes.


Food-safe material – Cuffs that are attached to utensils should be B.P.A. free, phthalate free, latex free. Users are handling these cuffs while eating, so it is important that the cuffs be made of a food-safe material.


Features to avoid

Cuff attached to hand

The cuff must be strapped onto and off of the user’s hand, while the utensil slips in and out of the cuff.

Hand attachment – Avoid the type of cuff that must be placed on the user’s hand first before it can function. Cuffs that use hand attachment rather than utensil attachment must be slipped on and off before and after each use.

For users who need help with grip and dexterity, this may be either extremely difficult or impossible. Be sure to only use utensil attachment cuffs.


Fixed fit – Any cuff that has a fixed fit and does not give the user leeway to make adjustments should be avoided. Users with hands that are too small or large for the cuff may not actually be able to fit into the cuff handle.

Rather than purchase a cuff that is unforgiving in its fit, opt for the more flexible cuff with an adjustable fit.


What to know before buying

Attaching cuffs to utensils requires manual dexterity and strength, so users should enlist the help of a family member or friend to apply all the cuffs initially. Once the cuffs have been joined to the utensils, users can begin implementing them independently.


Recommended supplementary products and home modifications


Appropriate height dining table and chairs


Purpose

A dining set positioned at the appropriate height helps users safely lower onto and stand up from chairs at the dining table. When the height of the dining table is proportional to the height of the chairs then users will be more comfortable while eating meals since the food and utensils will be within reach.


Must-have Features

Chair with armrestsChairs with armrests – Armrests on a chair give users a target to reach for when lowering onto the seat and a support to push off of when rising.

Without armrests, users may find themselves dangerously falling back onto the chair when trying to sit and helplessly struggling to hoist themselves up when trying to stand.


Wobble-free table and chairs – The table and chairs should not wobble when users shift their weight. If the table and chairs are unsteady, then consider adjusting the height of the legs accordingly.

The bottom legs can be sanded, or even cut, to eliminate any discrepancies that cause wobbling. Users can also adjust the table and chairs by adding a dollop of hot glue or a self-adhesive pad to the leg bottoms.

Just keep in mind that cutting down and building up the legs will affect the overall height of the tables and chairs.


Level tabletop – The tabletop should be level so that food and drinks do not wobble easily. An uneven tabletop increases the likelihood of tipping over dishes and knocking over glasses.

Tabletops made of wood can be sanded to level the surface. Metal and stone tabletops that have cracks or gouges can be filled in with resin repair kits.


Features to consider

Non-slip chair feet tips – The force of a user sitting down onto the chair may cause it to slide, especially if the chair is on a smooth, hard floor. If such is the case, consider applying an adhesive type non-slip tips to the bottom of the chair feet.

Non-slip adhesive furniture padThese non-skid tips can be made of rubber or some other material that helps keep the chair firmly in place. Avoid the tips that do not have an adhesive side to attach to the chair feet because they can fall off.

Keep in mind that chairs with these tips will likely have to be lifted up, rather than scooted, to be moved.


Features to avoid

Casters – Chairs with casters present safety concerns. As users sit down, the chair could roll backwards and cause users to land awkwardly on the seat. Furthermore, the chair could roll away from users when pushing off the arms to stand up.

Both of these scenarios could result in a fall that brings serious injury to the user. Avoid chairs with casters and stick to dining chairs that are stationary.

Chair with caster feet


What to know before buying

Proper sitting postureThe ideal chair height is positioned to give the user 90 degree bends at the hips, knees, and ankles. The best process to determine the proper height is really one of experimentation. Have the user sit in a back chair with hips, knees, and ankles all bending at 90 degrees. To establish these 90 degree angles, the chair must be at just the right height for the user.

If such a chair is not available, consider using a pneumatic office chair and adjusting its height to make 90 degree angles. Otherwise, use a chair that is too tall and place something flat under the user’s feet to serve as an elevated floor.

Pneumatic office chair for measuring user's ideal seat dimensions

Adjust the height of a pneumatic office chair for correct sitting posture

Place feet on a prop for correct sitting posture

Place feet on a prop for correct sitting posture

Once the user is seated properly, record the seat height measurement:

How to measure seat height

Seat height (floor to bottom of thigh where it meets the knee at 90 degrees)

To determine the ideal table height, have the user sit in the appropriate height chair. With arms hanging freely on both sides, have the user bend at the elbow to form a 90 degree angle. The distance from the bottom of the user’s arm to the floor is the ideal table height.

There is generally more leeway when it comes to table height, so a table that is within a few inches in either direction of the ideal measurement should be suitable.


Measure the dining area to verify that there is enough space to accommodate the table and chairs. The chairs should be able to fit comfortably in the room when pulled out from the table. Also, there should be adequate space to navigate around the dining table and chairs.


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