What You Need to Know About Feeding Tubes for Seniors with Dementia

dementia feeding tube

Be able to make an informed decision about feeding tubes

Most people in the late stage of Alzheimer’s or dementia have trouble eating and drinking. They may lose weight, become weak, or develop pressure sores. Or, food particles could get into their lungs and cause pneumonia.

When that happens, families may be asked if they want to put in a feeding tube.

Whether or not to use a feeding tube for someone with dementia is one of the most difficult decisions a family has to make. But in many cases, you aren’t getting the unbiased facts you need to help with the decision.

Of course, you want to do everything possible for someone who is declining. But some families have said they felt pressured by doctors or medical staff to use a feeding tube after only brief discussions and weren’t told of the potential risks and trauma to the older adult.

To help you make an informed decision, we explain what a feeding tube is, when they’re used, the risks of using them in late stage dementia, why they might be recommended by doctors, the costs, and why they aren’t recommended at the end of life.



What is a feeding tube and when are they used?

A feeding tube is a tube that’s placed into the body and allows liquid nutrition to be given through the tube. The feeding tube can be placed through the nose and down the throat or it can be placed through a small abdominal cut directly into the stomach.

They’re typically used when a person can’t chew or swallow on their own. A feeding tube can be helpful when the cause of the eating problem is likely to improve. For example, it can help when someone is recovering from surgery, stroke, or brain injury.

Feeding tubes can also be helpful if people have ongoing problems with swallowing, but aren’t in the last stage of an incurable illness – like when someone has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) or Parkinson’s disease.

However, tube feeding doesn’t help people live longer, gain more weight, become stronger, or regain skills.

An alternative to a feeding tube is careful hand feeding. That provides human contact and the enjoyment of tasting food.


Risks of using a feeding tube in late stage dementia

Like most medical treatments, there are pros and cons to using a feeding tube. They can sometimes do more harm than good, especially for someone in late stage Alzheimer’s or dementia.

A common issue is that many people with dementia are bothered by the tube and try to pull it out. To prevent that, they must be tied down or given drugs to restrain them.

Additional risks include:

  • Bleeding, infection, skin irritation, or leaking around the tube
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • The tube can get blocked or fall out (must be replaced in a hospital)
  • Higher risk of getting pressure sores
  • Higher risk of spitting up food, which could lead to pneumonia
  • At the end of life, tube feeding keeps the body more hydrated, which means that fluids can fill the person’s lungs and cause breathing problems


Why feeding tubes may be recommended by medical professionals

There are many caring medical professionals who truly put the patient’s best interests first and take time to explain treatments and discuss pros and cons.

Unfortunately, there are also people who are more focused on saving time or money and may recommend treatments that don’t always benefit the patient.

Knowing the facts about feeding tubes means that you won’t be rushed into an uninformed decision by medical professionals who aren’t focused on your older adult’s wishes or quality of life.

In a hospital, doctors may recommend a feeding tube because it could allow them to discharge the person to a skilled nursing facility sooner, saving money for the hospital. It also saves the doctor time they would have to spend explaining why a family may or may not want to use a feeding tube, answering questions, and waiting for a decision.

In a nursing home, a feeding tube may be recommended because it’s simpler and faster for staff to tube feed a person versus carefully hand feeding them.

Of course, every person’s condition is unique and there may be situations where a feeding tube could be a truly helpful treatment for your older adult.

The important thing is to know that there are always risks as well as benefits. It’s your right as your older adult’s advocate to ask questions and get unbiased facts before making a decision.

You shouldn’t be rushed into a decision this significant after only a quick 15 minute conversation that focuses on the “pros” and rushes through the “cons.”



Feeding tubes are a costly treatment

If it’s something your older adult truly needs, the last thing you’re thinking about is the cost of the treatment.

But if a feeding tube might not be necessary, it’s important to know that the cost of putting one in may be more than $10,000. You may also want to find out about the daily cost of tube feeding, necessary supplies, and follow-up care before making a final decision.


Tube feeding isn’t recommended at the end of life

When someone is at the end of their life and can no longer be fed by hand, you might worry that your older adult will starve to death.

But refusing food and water is a natural, non-painful part of the dying process. They’re not eating because they’re dying, not the other way around.

The body is shutting down and no longer eating or drinking is a normal part of that process. Not allowing the body to naturally dehydrate can cause nausea, vomiting, swelling, or breathing problems due to lung congestion.

Plus, there isn’t any good evidence that tube feeding helps people live longer or improves their quality of life.


Next Step  Print or save a factsheet about the use of feeding tubes in people with Alzheimer’s or dementia from Choosing Wisely (PDF)


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By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Image: Austco


This article wasn’t sponsored and doesn’t contain affiliate links. For more information, see How We Make Money.


  • Reply December 14, 2021


    Mother 86yrs.old speech is slurred,would g tube cause her to lose the ability to talk

    • Reply December 14, 2021


      This is definitely something you should tell her doctor right away. They would be able to evaluate whether a medical condition or her g-tube is causing a problem.

  • Reply November 13, 2021

    Helen Pennington

    Thank you for the information in this article. My husband and I have been caregivers to his 95 year old aunt for 1 1/2 years and her dementia has gotten worse. About 10 days ago she fell and was sent to the hospital. While there it was found through a swallow test that she could no longer swallow .This article was very helpful about making a decision between a feeding tube vs hospice.

    • Reply November 13, 2021


      You’re so welcome! We’re so glad that this information was helpful 💜

  • Reply September 29, 2021

    Elizabeth Allen

    My autistic non verbal son appendix busted at group home wasn’t taken to hospital for 2 days. Immediate surgery performed with 6 inches of bowel then. Has been in hospital with feeding tube open wound stomach vac machine. Bospitsl wants a nursing home BUT all have refused due to complex case. I am 78yrs old I need help what is his prognosis are they sending him go nursing home to die? What are my options

    • Reply September 29, 2021


      We’re so sorry to hear about your son’s condition. It sounds like you need local help from someone who can navigate the healthcare and nursing home systems. In terms of his condition and health outlook, you’d need to speak with a doctor who is familiar with his case to answer that question.

      We’re not familiar with agencies that work with disabled adults, but a good starting point might be your city or county’s department of disability services.

  • Reply December 2, 2018

    Richard L. Holt

    I went to this URL to find out about feeding tubes and did not find out anything about them….why beyond the use with dementia problems.. what I want to know is the facts about their construction, how they are cleaned, how the food is fed through them and a whole lot more questions pertaining to the how the food is fed through them, how the tube is kept clean, etc; etc; etc.

    • Reply December 2, 2018


      I’m sorry you were disappointed by the content of this article. The focus is on looking at the reasons why someone might choose to use or not use a feeding tube for someone with dementia who is no longer able to eat on their own. The purpose wasn’t to discuss the mechanics of a tube feeding system.

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