Delicious Secrets to Collaborating in the Kitchen With People Who are Living with Dementia
Deborah Shouse's Thanksgiving Story:
The dread seized me in early October. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and I always look forward to seeing my parents from Memphis and my brother and his family from Chicago. But when Mom showed up without her famous date crumbs, butterscotch brownies, and bourbon balls, I knew everything had changed. Despite my mother’s sweet attitude, seeing her clenched hands and tight mouth, understanding she was unable to remember any of her old recipes, broke my heart.
The following year, I vowed things would be different. Despite her dementia, I would find ways to engage Mom and I would deal with my own expectations and emotions.
I asked my brother Dan if he could bake Mom’s date crumbs. He agreed, and on Thanksgiving, he arrived bearing a cooler full of our favorite childhood treats. Mom arrived, clutching Dad’s hand, her mouth in a thin line. After they’d had a chance to relax, I invited Mom and Dad to help me with vegetable preparation. As we settled around the table, I reminded Mom how to snap green beans and she sat beside me, contentedly breaking beans. Then we sliced mushrooms with dull dinner knives. My father supervised, eating cashews and reminiscing. We folded napkins together. Mom picked grapes off their stems and transferred blueberries and raspberries into a big bowl.
That evening, friends joined us for our Thanksgiving feast. When they praised the meal, I introduced the sous team and am pleased to include Mom and Dad. Mom smiled and I took her hand.
“Did I help?” she quietly asked.
“I’m glad,” she said. “I always like to help.”
My brother carried in a tray of desserts and Mom selected a date crumb and a butterscotch brownie.
“These are good,” she said, grinning.
“They ought to be,” I said. “They’re your recipes.”
Giving Back Through Cooking
It’s lovely to linger in the kitchen together, preparing food for the holidays.
“Cooking is very personal and it’s central to a person’s life,” says Sue Fitzsimmons, MS, ARNP. “Many times, when people go deeper into dementia, they don’t have the opportunity to prepare food. And they don’t have a chance to make something for someone else.”
Fixing a delicacy for someone offers a tangible and delicious way to give back.
Rebecca Katz, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook sees food as a great equalizer, something anyone can enjoy regardless of abilities.
Here are some tips from experts that include Kate Pierce, LMSW, Alzheimer's Association Greater Michigan Chapter, Rebecca Katz, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook, and Cathy Greene from Silverado Memory Care:
- Select a treasured recipe or favorite food.
- Choose simple, safe tasks you can do together. Examples include tearing lettuce for a salad, separating orange slices, mixing together whole pumpkin seeds, cashews, and walnuts for a healthy snack. You might also enjoy washing and drying dishes together.
- Use the foods, the preparation, or the occasion as a catalyst for conversation and reminiscing. Encourage stories and ask open-ended questions.
- Look for seasonal recipes or foods that have delicious aromas, interesting textures and/or evoke good memories. Some examples include baking holiday cookies, preparing cinnamon rolls, mashing potatoes, or cranking ice cream. Simplify the recipes as needed.
- Even if the person living with dementia can’t help prepare food, he can still enjoy sitting in on the action and the conversation. Having the experience is more satisfying than sharing any dish of food.
A Few Extras to Nibble On:
The following few ideas are perfect cooking activities to do to make someone with dementia feel included:
The Icing off the Cake: Decorating with icing can be enticing even for someone who isn’t used to cooking. Buy or make icing, then decorate a plate, cupcake, or even a piece of toast using icing pens or making broad sweet swoops with a knife.
A Recipe for Reminiscence: You can adapt Elizabeth’s idea to any holiday season. As her husband Charlie moved deeper into dementia, Elizabeth Miller bought a cookbook from his teenage years, the 1960s. They read through the recipes and highlighted the ones he remembered his mom making. Then, with Charlie as her sous chef, Elizabeth made dishes such as chicken cacciatore, tuna casserole, and spaghetti and meatballs. They invited Charlie’s childhood friends over for a meal and talked about old times while they chowed down on John Marzetti Casserole, a fancy term for elbow macaroni and ground beef.
Pizza Party: For a delightful post-holiday meal, invite everyone to build his and her own individual pizza. Each person has a small round of dough, a dish of sauce to spread on it, an array of toppings to choose from, and some cheese to sprinkle on. The sensory taste-fest inspires lots of conversation and decision-making and is fun for multi-generations and people of varying abilities.
Giving Bark: Stir purpose into the kitchen experience by baking dog biscuits for animals in a shelter.
Whether you’re stirring a pot of orzo or dropping mint leaves into cool water, enjoy your time of creation and connection in the kitchen.