Red plate project offers bright results for dementia patients

(Southern Health News, September 2019)

Red plate project offers bright results

Could simply changing the colour of a dinner plate be the answer to getting dementia patients to eat more?

A new continuous improvement initiative being piloted at Noarlunga’s Hospital’s Myles Ward suggests it could be.

Dementia is a complex condition and the risk of malnutrition and weight loss is significant as it progresses. Symptoms of advanced dementia include lack of concentration and memory, and a reduced appetite. Patients will often not finish meals and will struggle to gain weight.

Luke Shepperd, a Registered Nurse in Myles Ward - a specialised dementia unit – had seen first-hand how difficult it was to maintain weight in his patients.

As part of his Masters in Nursing research, Luke had read in the scientific literature about the use of contrasting plate colours to entice dementia patients to eat more on their plate. He wanted to see if this evidence-based approach could be implemented in practice, so he introduced the ‘red plate’ project.

‘The concept behind the red plate project is quite simple really. It’s about making food more recognisable and attractive to dementia patients. For example, white chicken or white mashed potato on a white plate isn’t easily ’seen’ or recognised by dementia patients, so they tend to eat less of it. But put the white chicken and white mashed potato on a red plate, and it suddenly is much more recognisable, and attractive to eat, for the patient.’

Over a four week period, patients in Myles were served all of their meals on red crockery.  Then for the next four weeks, they were served meals on white crockery.

The difference in what they eat was encouraging.

‘In fact, we found that patients gained an average of 342 grams in weight during the red plate phase of the trial.’

Luke’s efforts in the red plate project were recognised in the recent SALHN Health Awards, where he was named winner of the Excellence in Translating Research into Practice category.

The project has now become a catalyst for a string of new initiatives within Myles to improve the holistic care provided to patients.

The initiatives include the reintroduction of a music therapist, visits by therapy dogs, a specialist volunteer program and the ‘about me’ flower initiative, which was also introduced by Luke.

The ‘about me’ flower project shares patients’ preferences, history and background on a flower photo collage placed on each patient’s door. A display has also been set up in the dining room, prompting more interaction and conversations between patients, volunteers, family members and staff.

‘Patients within Myles are some of the most vulnerable consumers within our organisation, and their behaviours towards other patients and staff can something makes it a challenging place to work and stay. But these initiatives have really opened the door to greater communication and a happier environment for all,’ said Catherine Hughes, the Co-Director of the SALHN Division of Rehabilitation, Aged and Palliative Care.

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