“Mom, are you ready to help me make your famous meatloaf recipe?’ Stacy asked. Stacey was in town for the weekend, visiting her mom, Alice, and giving her sister a break from caregiving.
Stacy had wanted to take Alice out to eat, but her sister told her, “Mom can get pretty overwhelmed and confused when she’s around a lot of people. Why don’t you stay home and cook with her?”
Her sister was a nurse and seemed at ease with Alice’s diminished memory. But Stacy bit her lip when her sister suggested cooking.
“Think of a family recipe,” her sister advised. “Get all the ingredients organized beforehand and make sure the room is quiet and Mom has a comfortable chair. Once Mom gets started, she can do quite a bit. Just don’t rush her.”
It just so happened Stacy had been craving her mother’s famous meatloaf. That evening, she watched the news while she laid out the bowls, utensils, and ingredients on the table.
“A feast!” Alice exclaimed, as she shuffled into the kitchen. Stacy clicked off the television and said, “It will be a feast, Mom. It’s your meatloaf recipe. Will you help me make it?”
“You used to help me. In Provincetown,” Alice said.
Stacy’s eyes misted. Sometimes her mom didn’t seem to know who Stacy was and when that happened, Stacy could barely breathe.
“You stood on a chair,” her mom said.
“Wearing Grandma’s apron.” Stacy could see the apron, a frilly flowered chintz with a red ribbon sash.
“This is your grandmother’s recipe,” Alice said. “She lived in Boston, you know, with her older sister.” As she reminisced, Alice cracked and whipped the egg. Then she poured the mixture onto the beef and blended it in with her hands. She sprinkled the breadcrumbs into the meat, added a handful of her secret ingredient—raisins– and plenty of pepper, then mixed it all together.
Stacy gave her mother the pan and Alice expertly shaped the loaf. Then she noticed her messy hands and wiped them on her slacks. “Am I eating dinner with you? Where is the other one?”
“She is out with friends tonight. And yes, you are eating dinner with me.”
“What time will your father get here?”
Stacy looked carefully at her widowed mom and wondered what she should answer.
“It’s just you and me tonight, Mom.”
“Don’t forget the parsley,” Alice said.
While the meatloaf cooked, Stacy brought over some bread dough she’d thawed earlier. Alice had been a phenomenal baker and Stacy still remembered the scintillating taste of her mom’s cinnamon rolls. When Alice saw the dough, she began to knead it. As she kneaded, she talked about the types of bread she’d made when she was a girl. “Even sourdough,” Alice said. “Our cousin brought a starter from San Francisco and we were all a buzz.”
“Which cousin, Mom?”
“Oh that Gertrude. You remember her, always dolled up and always flirting with the men. But she could bake a good dinner roll.”
“What was your favorite thing to bake?”
Alice slid her hands over the rolling pin and rolled the dough thin. Then she tore it into little tadpole shapes, one of their favorite childhood treats.
“Remember, Stacy doesn’t like hers burned,” her mom cautioned.
Even though her mother ate little and fell asleep at the dinner table, Stacy felt like the evening was a success.
“Cooking together can help family members connect in the kitchen,” says Kate Williams, LMSW,Care Counselor/Social Worker, Henry Ford Health System Collaborative, Alzheimer’s Association Greater Michigan Chapter. “The act of preparing food can draw on long term memory and trigger activities people have done in the past.”
Since the care partner needs to make meals anyway, working together offers a low-stress way to accomplish a task and a chance to relive family and food memories. People want to be useful and have a purpose; Kate believes creating food for and with someone meets that need.
For a successful cooking experience, Kate offers these tips:
· When designing cooking activities, consider the person and their current skills. Make sure the number of steps is appropriate to his or her level of memory loss.
· Give them as much independence as possible and be ready to help as needed.
· Create an environment with few distractions.
· Prepare the food and cooking utensils, so everything is at the ready. If possible, using the same type of equipment they used in the past.
Even for those who can’t really follow directions, the sensory experience of handling food can be connective and comforting. Cooking projects engage the senses, invite memories, offer a sense of completion and purpose, and are nurturing for both care partners.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.