Artificial Hydration and Nutrition in Advanced Alzheimer's

In my conversations with families of patients with Alzheimer's disease, they often have anxiety over withholding or withdrawing artificial hydration and nutrition. What should be done when a patient refuses to eat? What does this behavior mean? This article will help illustrate the importance of education in alleviating common family fears and in helping families learn to advocate for their loved one.

What happens when a patient stops receiving nutrition and hydration?

In this recent article on determining hospice eligibility for dementia patients, I refer to the Functional Assessment Staging (FAST) scale, which is used to determine dementia progression. Patients progressing through the various stages will ultimately reach the point when they refuse food and fluids. In addition to helping clinicians determine the progression of a patient's dementia, the FAST scale also helps us understand certain behaviors, such as refusing to eat, that patients exhibit. Let's look at the scale again:

*Levels 1"“5: Patient experiences increasing forgetfulness, inability to perform complex tasks, and needs assistance with dressing.

*Level 6: Patient needs help with bathing and toileting, and is unable to control bladder or bowels.

*Level 7: Patient experiences inability to form intelligent speech, inability to ambulate without assistance, and requires total care.

For clinicians, determining the etiology"”or cause"”of the problem should be paramount. Does the patient have difficulty chewing or swallowing due to the disease process? Does the patient pocket or spit out food or have problems with aspiration? Are there other medical problems developing such as infection or constipation? This detective work is necessary to determine whether the patient's loss of interest in food is caused by advanced depression or an inability to interpret the sensation of hunger.1

Families become very distressed when their loved one refuses to eat. Our instincts tell us to provide nutrition to people who are ill. Food is symbolic of life and of love and of caring. But when a patient reaches the final stages of dementia, the body can no longer metabolize food, and food can stay in the digestive tract, causing nausea and vomiting. Certain food (especially meat) may not taste or smell good and may be difficult to chew. This is an expected progression, usually seen in the final stage of the FAST. Ultimately, the patient may prefer only liquids, and then nothing at all. When the patient is nearing the end of life, allowing him or her to refuse food is one of the hardest decisions facing families and clinicians, but it is the kindest thing we can do.

Won't Mom die if we don't feed her?

Here is where education comes in. Families need to refocus on what is really happening in advanced dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association provides wonderful resources to help families cope with and understand the changes they observe, particularly about eating. Providing adequate food and fluids during the various stages can be especially challenging to the family and the caregiver. Offering small meals that contain soft, sweet and cold foods seems to appeal to these patients. Ultimately, the disease process itself leads to reduced food and fluid intake partly due to declining perceptions of smell and taste, the inability to feed oneself, and feelings of loss of control and depression. Further, patients “may refuse to eat because of physiological or behavioral conditions, or they do so because they are at the end of life.” 2

By the final stage, the patient will have lost the ability to perform almost all activities of daily living. Eating is generally the last of the activities to be lost. Swallowing difficulties may lead to aspiration pneumonia and culminate in the patient being sent to the hospital. This is the time for the physician to educate the family about why the patient is no longer eating, clarify the disease progression and explain the burdens and benefits of starting artificial nutrition and hydration. Generally, this is when the family and physician decide on comfort care, and the physician makes a referral to hospice services. These conversations are never easy, but the expertise that the hospice nurse can provide is most beneficial to the family and other health care providers.

What is artificial hydration and nutrition (AHN)?

 When I speak to families about the feeding alternatives they are considering, I always emphasize that feeding a patient artificially is not the same as eating and drinking is for the rest of us. Food is not chewed and liquids are not taken from a glass. The patient’s ability to perceive hunger may have been lost. Usually by this point, a swallow test has been administered and feeding the patient has been determined to be high risk. I review with the family the rationale for withholding the artificial route. We talk about the benefits and burdens, and they consider what their loved one’s quality of life will be. If the family is considering the insertion of a nasogastric tube, I caution them that most nursing homes in our area will not accept patients with one because of the continued risk of aspiration and excoriation of nasal mucosa. The other choice is a PEG (percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy) tube, which is surgically implanted. Most people have never seen a nasogastric tube or a PEG tube, but it’s critical to understand the risks and potential discomforts for the patient before deciding on this course of action. Whatever method the family decides on, one thing is certain: once AHN has been started, it is more emotionally stressful to withdraw it—for both families and health care workers.

Why is an advance directive important?

AHN is a medical treatment, and as such, it can be refused. I have seen families struggle to determine “what Mom would have wanted” when faced with feeding dilemmas. Ideally, patients have stated, in advance, what care they would and would not want in the event they are unable to speak for themselves. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In an article published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the author states:

“Advance care planning plays a critical role in feeding decisions. The lack of advance directives is a consistent risk factor associated with feeding tube insertion in dementia. Clinicians have an opportunity to prepare patients with early disease and their families about what to expect in the later stages of dementia, including eating problems.”3

In the absence of an advance directive, clinicians must advocate for the patient. What is in the patient’s best interest? Are we prolonging life, or prolonging death and suffering? Although emotionally charged, these conversations are highly beneficial—and crucial—for families who are struggling to find some balance.

Families of patients with advanced dementias need education from clinicians when the desire to eat stops. As clinicians, we need to discuss, in clear terms, the etiology of the disease process and the expected progression. We are the trusted professionals. Together we can provide the guidance, the support, and the continuity of care (regardless of the decision) that our patients and families deserve.


1The Education for Physicians on End-of-Life (EPEC) Project, Feeding decisions in advanced dementia, pp. 1–15, retrieved July 31, 2008.
2Dementia Care Practice Recommendations for Assisted Living Residences and Nursing Home—Phase 1: Food and Fluid Consumption, p. 9. Tilly, J, Reed P, Eds. Chicago: Alzheimer’s Association.
3Mitchell, SL, A 93-year-old man with advanced dementia and eating problems. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2007; 298 (21):2527–2536. Retrieved July 3, 2008, from

almost 2 years ago, said...

My grandma refuses to eat and my dad is always fighting with her how can you get them to eat it's so aggravating we can't give her the mesds the doctor wants us to she claims of being full every meal tim

over 2 years ago, said...

My husband has dementia and has gotten to the point of not swallowing except a little I've told the nursing home no feeding tube . He is given nutritional shake which he likes and tell him to swallow but doesn't always do it. He is so thin and I know it's the dementia but I never stop trying to get him to try to eat or drink a little.

almost 3 years ago, said...

In reply to "An anonymous caregiver" and his/her concern about starvation: Having lost my wife to Alzheimer's, I can understand your anguish. Comfort for a dying person is not just about food and hunger. There is also pain relief. Someone who no longer eats or drinks can still benefit from a few drops of liquid morphine placed under the tongue. Loss of interest in food is fairly common in late Alzheimer's. In her last weeks, my wife ate less and slept more until she finally slept peacefully, and so deeply that she could not be wakened, for several days straight. She died peacefully in her sleep. There are worse ways to go.

almost 3 years ago, said...

I do not see how letting someone starve to death is dignified. I agree that we should let them go when they get to the final stages, but starving is horrible. My mother's doctor has said we will keep her comfortable, but she isn't getting the sensation of hunger. Well if she doesn't feel hungry, then why do we need to dope her up with meds to keep her comfortable?

about 3 years ago, said...

I write from personal experience. It is one thing to know that inserting a feeding tube does more harm than good for patients with late Alzheimer's; it is another to check the "No" box for that process on a form with a beloved patient's name at the top. The temptation to grasp at straws is strong, but it *can* and *should* be resisted.

about 3 years ago, said...

My mum had a urine infection and is currently on antibiotics. She's lost all interest in food and drink. I'm so scared that she will die of starvation. Is there any hope of her recovering her ability to eat and drink and enjoy it again? She's on her 3rd day of antibiotics. Or is this the end. Could it just be the UTI that's put her off food etc.. As other syptoms of the UTI are gradually getting walking and talking are improving these past two days... She sleeps a lot but is 81 and had dimentia/Alzheimer's for 7yrs. But gone downhill since this infection..many thanks Elaine x

over 3 years ago, said...

My mother in law is not in the final stages of Alzheimer's but she is refusing to eat and has not eaten any solids for several weeks. We can usually encourage her to drink one ensure, she will eat two bites of custard and 1 or 2 crackers each day. This has been going on for three weeks. I am very concerned for her well being. Any suggestions

over 4 years ago, said...

Yes. We all die at some time. Surely, we are allowed to do that?

over 5 years ago, said...

It has been a challenge to even identify what stage my MIL is in. Since she refuses to eat for two days and then she eats in the third day, her medications are now discontinued. She appears to be around stage 5-6. She still can speak but stays 90% of time talking to herself and to imaginary people. We decided that if she goes on without eating for a longer period (three days or longer) we will take her to the hospital to re-start the medications and seek for alternative routes (Exelon patch, for instance). It is possible that she also is very depressed. Our major concern is to ensure that she is hydrated and does not loose excessively weight. Her rationale for not eating is that she is not home (indeed, she is living with us and her husband temporarily in an apartment). However, we also know that her idea of home is not her recent house, but is her childhood's house overseas that no longer exists. Any comments on this issue will be deeply appreciated.

almost 7 years ago, said...

Hi Debra Rogers, Thanks for your question. One great place to find an answer to your question is our Ask & Answer section: Thanks again -- Emily | Community Manager

almost 7 years ago, said...

So when the patient refuses food and drinks, should you just leave them alone and not force them to eat?