Food is something that's brought humans together for centuries. People break bread as a sign of peace, agreement or fellowship. Families gather for daily meals or holiday feasts. Take a moment to think about your life and some of your strongest memories, and chances are food is somehow involved in at least a few of them.
One of the reasons food memories can be so strong is that they're steeped in sensory experiences. You see, smell, touch, taste and even hear food. The sound and smell of bacon frying in the morning can awaken your senses and invoke memories, and the texture of Grandma's fresh-baked bread is accompanied by the sight of it slathered in butter and the smell and taste of it.
Sensory experiences can be important for anyone who has a memory diagnosis, such as dementia or Alzheimer's. Strong sensory experiences can help invoke some memories or put memory and focus functions that still exist to use. All the great food experiences in the world won't stop a memory disease from progressing, but they can help someone in any stage of these diseases better enjoy life and connect with others.
Here's what caregivers should know about cooking with loved ones who have memory diagnoses.
One of the biggest benefits of cooking with a memory diagnosis is that it involves the person in something they may have enjoyed or been involved with all their life. While sensory food experiences might be beneficial for almost anyone, they can be especially stimulating for people who've always liked to cook or who were generally involved in preparing meals for themselves and their families. In this case, cooking can bring back that sense of purpose and help the individual feel more involved as an important member of the family or household.
Being able to do something for yourself provides dignity and independence — something that's important for everyone, including those who are at any stage of a memory condition. In early stages, someone with dementia or Alzheimer's can often prepare an entire meal, especially if it's one they've prepared many times before. As the disease progresses, the person may still be able to make a simple meal or snack, and even later in disease progression, an older adult may be able to plate snacks or make a sandwich with some oversight from a caregiver. Supporting these activities at all stages of the disease process supports dignity and quality of life.
Cooking can be an inherently social experience, especially when done with or around others. We gather in kitchens to chat as some people prepare food, and then family and friends gather again to enjoy the food that was prepared. Ensuring you invite your older loved one with a memory condition into that social setting can be important, as it contributes to positive support and personal interactions that are important for everyone. Cooking is also a great way to do this because it doesn't put pressure on the older adult to talk, remember previous conversations or even know people's names. They can be present helping with the meal and enjoying the company while entering those conversations as they're comfortable.
Of course, safety is a concern, and caregivers and families should keep the safety of the older adult and everyone else in mind. Look for signs that you might need to simplify the cooking routine as someone experiences deepening dementia. They might include:
As dementia or memory care issues worsen, caregivers might use some of the tips below to safely involve their loved ones in cooking:
Using a common-sense approach to cooking with an older loved one with memory issues helps keep everyone safe in the kitchen. And cooking together lets you monitor things for safety while enjoying time together.