• eating difficulties;
  • dementia;
  • nursing homes;
  • qualitative research;
  • nurses

Aim. To describe the nature of problems nurses face when feeding nursing home patients with severe dementia, and how they deal with these problems.

Background. In our study on starting or withholding artificial nutrition and hydration for nursing home patients with dementia, we found that many problems in feeding arose (long) before any decision was made about artificial feeding, namely from the first moment a patient needed help with meals. Because ‘ordinary feeding’ was experienced as a daily recurring problem for nurses, we decided to investigate this within the study.

Methods. Participant observation by two researchers in two Dutch nursing homes.

Findings. Nurses interpreted the aversive behaviour of patients differently, and a link between interpretation and responses (stop or continue feeding) was observed. Differences in interpretation with regard to the same patient were observed in nurses in five of the seven units. Only in three units did nurses discuss their different interpretations in an attempt to find out why a patient avoided food and fluids and how to deal with these problems.

Conclusions. Nurses' interpretations of aversive behaviour of patients differ. No definite conclusions can be drawn about the causes of the aversive behaviour observed, because they cannot be verified. We recommend that interpretations of the behaviour of particular patients should be discussed by nurses with physicians, other disciplines and the patient's family to obtain more insight into all its possible causes and to determine together the most likely interpretation and appropriate way in which to deal with the aversive behaviour. This would give nurses more confidence and improve the quality and continuity of care provided. To structure the search for possible causes of aversive behaviour, we developed a framework of causes of aversive behaviour and domains of functioning.