AT for Independence in the Kitchen Part 3: Assistive Technology for Eating

Together in Parts 1 and 2 of the AT for Independence in the Kitchen blog series we have envisioned an accessible experience with preparing and cooking our food, and now the next phase of cooking is the best – eating!  If you haven’t had a chance to read about methods to adapt the preparing stages of a meal experience, please catch up with Part 1: Adapted Meal Prep Devices and Part 2: Adapted Measuring of our AT for Independence in the Kitchen blog series. 

I don’t know about you, but if I am unable to enjoy the fruit of my labor it is not worth spending hours slaving over a hot stove!  In Part 3 of our blog series we focus on how to make the best part of the cooking process more accessible.

If the experience of collectively cooking a meal brings a family together, the experience of sharing a meal takes the experience to the next level.  Making and eating a meal with increased levels of independence can unify family, raise spirits and increase quality of life for all members of the family.  It would be a shame if you or a loved one weren’t able to fully enjoy the wonderful meal because your dinnerware, seating or utensils were not fully accessible.

There are many types of physical limitations or restrictions that can result in an individual facing challenges with independently eating.  Complicating the solution to making eating an accessible activity is that there are many individual tasks that must be completed in order to succeed in the self-feeding or drinking processes.  For example, when you eat you have to be able to maintain functional positioning, grasp the utensil, have sufficient visual skills or strategies to locate the desired food item, have motor skills to engage with the food on the plate, bring the food to mouth and return to the starting position.  The tasks are similar for drinking, but instead of locating, engaging with and manipulating silverware and food, you are focused on a cup of some sort. Visual, motor and dexterity skills all come into play with the “simple” task of eating or drinking for yourself.  A deficit in one or more of these areas and your ability to consistently and independently complete a meal may be compromised.

As has become the theme in this blog series, fortunately there is likely assistive technology that can help. Let’s explore some assistive technology and strategies to make eating a meal more independent and enjoyable.

Adapted Serving utensils

Part of hosting a meal or dinner party is serving your guests.  The host, whether an elderly relative (Think Mary from Part 1) or a group of friends (Think Laura from Part 1), should not be excluded from this common practice.  The most common challenge faced is related to gripping and maintaining grasp of the handles.  Commercially available Adapted serving utensils can be hard to find, but there are many do-it-yourself options.  Increase the diameter or make a change to the grip using a foam hair roller, PVC or other readily available material.  A universal cuff can provide assistance in holding the utensil in a position to allow for serving food. The utensil could also be adapted to add a permanent raised handle or cuff. 

Adapted Eating Utensils

For many people who face challenges at mealtime, physically eating may be the most significant challenge faced.  Tremors, joint restrictions, muscle weakness, visual impairment and other conditions can all negatively impact one’s ability to independently eat a meal.

For general grasp or grip strength challenges, using a universal cuff that secures the spoon or fork may be all that is needed to enable the individual.  However, similar to serving utensils there are many creative user interfaces that can easily be constructed.

If in addition to grasping challenges a person also experiences tremors,  it may be beneficial to use a large grip, weighted utensil to help minimize demand on grasping muscles and help stabilize the tremors.  There are many commercially available options, with and without an angled shaft.  One really impressive, newer to the market device that is designed to enable independent eating for someone with tremors (even moderate to severe tremors!) is the Liftware Steady device.  This devices dampens the effect of the tremors making the spoon or fork more steady.

If challenges at mealtime are related to Arthritis or other joint restrictions, Liftware also has a device called the Liftware Level that has a shaft that self-adjusts to a functional position of the person’s arm or hand, and maintains a level fork or spoon position.  

If a person’s feeding challenges are related to significant motor limitations and/or muscle strength, the individual may benefit from using an electric self-feeder. These devices are comprised of a rotating plate, a switch and an articulating arm.  The person activates the switch to control the rotating plate and articulating arm to move the desired food into position and bring the food to their mouth.  In many cases it may be possible to obtain this device via health insurance.  Acquisition of this level of complex assistive technology should be obtained with the assistance and oversight of an Occupational Therapist.

Adapted Dinnerware and Accessories

Next to holding onto the eating utensils, not being able to get the food off the plate or out of the bowl can ruin a potentially meaningful experience.  Standard size, open cups can also present a series of challenges for individuals with grip/dexterity issues, muscle weakness or general deficits in motor control.  These types of challenges and potential resulting situations can result in embarrassment and disappointment. Let’s consider a couple more personalized situations.

Imagine that your grandfather has had a stroke and is only able to consistently use his right hand for all tasks.  Your family is all gathered for a holiday meal using the good china.  As he tries to scoop his delicious, gooey macaroni and cheese it keeps sliding off the edge of the plate.  Additionally, he needs to drink from a straw, but it becomes difficult for him to constantly suck fluid up the full shaft of the straw.

Imagine that you have a child with special needs and are working really hard to establish a family meal time, but all your focus in on helping them learn to hold onto their fork/spoon, get a bite without the food falling off the plate, and take a drink without spilling.  You want to offer him the most normal eating experience you can with regard to silverware, dinnerware and drinking cups.  Ideally, you would also love if you could enjoy a family mealtime out at a restaurant, but eating supplies at a restaurant are not conducive to this experience.

Let’s look at some categories of assistive technology that could help remediate the challenges for individuals across the lifespan, as well as those in the two scenarios above.

Eating

To help keep plates or bowls from moving there are many options of dinnerware with suction on the bottom, and many are even at an angle to further assist the scooping process.  Some options have partitions to keep food separated and offering multiple extra contact points. In addition you could use a non-slip placemat to keep the whole place setting from moving away.

A great development has been the wide range of plate and bowl options that have an elevated ledge to help provide support scooping or loading of food.

Drinking

Drinking beverages can present a range of challenges from physically holding the cup, tipping the cup to drink, maintaining seated positioning in the act of drinking, setting the cup down and physiologically taking a drink. Let’s look at some options for individuals across the lifespan that address several different areas of challenge.

The Nosey cup has a cutout on the opposite side from the user.  This makes room for the individual’s nose, allowing for drinking without lifting the head.

Using a two-handled Dignity mug allows for multiple gripping and lifting options,  offering an increase in stability for those who experience reduced muscle strength or decreased dexterity in their hands.   A great option for someone facing challenges associated with Arthritis.

If in addition to benefiting from a handled cup, there can be challenges with securely setting down the cup without spilling.  In these cases it may be beneficial to use something with a wider base, like the Halo cup.

When seeking an alternative for physically holding and tipping a cup to drink, there are a couple of straw options that can be considered.

A great invention for parents of young children or someone of any age needing a little extra defense against spilling a standard cup is a Silicon lid with straw hole that converts ANY standard cup into a spill-proof, straw accessible option. One example is the SipSnap .

As far as straws go, the One-way straw makes drinking easier for individuals with a weak suck, oral motor difficulties, and/or problems generating and maintaining suction. The straws have a built-in valve that controls the direction of fluid one-way – fluid flows up into the straw, but does not empty back into the cup. With fluid remaining at the top of the straw, less air is ingested and less effort is required to drink.  There are also extra long, flexible straws that are longer and can be flexed into the ideal position for someone to reach without lifting the cup or requiring much change in postural position.

In Part 1 of the blog series we discussed adapted cutting boards and knives for accessible and safe access to cutting and food prep activities.  In Part 2 we discussed assistive technology for measuring and manipulating our ingredients.  And, finally, in Part 3 we got to the fun part of cooking and explored assistive technology that can help enable individuals to have greater independence while sharing a meal with their friends or family.   Additionally, most assistive technology for mealtimes are easily portable to expand accessible eating to picnics and restaurant experiences.

Putting small measures in place to offer any amount of increased independence can have a significant impact on the individual and the family.  An inability to use existing kitchen or eating apparatus should not be the limiting factor for an individual or their family.  

If you don’t know where to start or want guidance on making a decision please contact me.  I would love to help you give someone in your family greater independence and an increase in their quality of life.

 

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