Food, sharing meals, and cooking is a central part of all of our lives. Food is often linked to strong emotions, whether it is sharing meals with family at a special occasion, or being able to fix your favorite comfort food after a difficult day. For some people cooking was their role in the family and their purpose for many years. Cooking daily meals is often an essential part of someone’s independence, but many people who have dementia struggle with cooking. Preparing even a simple meal requires remembering many steps and multitasking. Brain changes that occur in dementia often impair the mental abilities necessary for cooking. Moreover dementia can damage taste and smell making food preparation even more challenging. Difficulties with cooking will come on gradually and may be inconsistent. It can be difficult for both the individual with dementia and their family to know when and how help is needed.

Dealing with change in abilities

Because self-reflection is also often impaired in dementia (the technical word is anosagnosia) many people with dementia can also be resistant to giving up cooking and to losing their role as chef in the family. It is especially difficult for them, as well as for the caregiver, to accept someone else taking over the role or to relying on pre-made food. These changes are a practical and emotional challenge for both the caregiver and the person with dementia. While it won’t erase the changes taking place, the caregiver is helped by acknowledging the loss and finding strategies to moderate the emotional impact of the changes in someone’s ability to participate in preparing meals. Below are some suggestions on how to practically navigate this difficult transition.

When to be worried?

It can be difficult to know when someone with dementia is struggling with cooking. A goal of preserving independence is often at odds with the goal to maintain safety. Below are some questions which can help you to know when someone with dementia may need more assistance with meal preparation.  

Things to watch for:

It can be difficult to know when someone with dementia is struggling with cooking. A goal of preserving independence is often at odds with the goal to maintain safety. Below are some questions which can help you to know when someone with dementia may need more assistance with meal preparation.  
  • Struggling with a recipe: Are they struggling to prepare well known recipes?
  • Gettomg mixed up: Do they get mixed up during meal preparation?
  • Forgetting: Do they leave out important steps or ingredients?
  • Mistaken measurements: Are they over/under spicing food?
  • Mishandling appliances: Are appliances being left on after the meal is prepared?
  • Spoiled foods: Are spoiled foods not being thrown away?
  • Miscalculating cooking time: Are meals regularly burnt or under cooked or Do they miscalculate cooking times?
  • Changes in eating patterns:Do you notice that your family member is avoiding cooking or eating meals that do not involve many steps; for example, cereal or a sandwich, more often?

Safety Concerns

In early stages of mild dementia it is possible and sometimes very helpful to have someone who is diagnosed with dementia still involved in cooking. This can often involve cooking together. This not only ensures that cooking is done safely by the person with dementia, but that they have the support they need to be successful. Below are some safety strategies that can be helpful to consider.

Some kitchen safety strategies:

  • Simplify steps: Simplify cooking by having fewer and less complex steps
  • Achievable tasks: Choose tasks that can be easily achieved by the person with dementia
  • Safe utensils: Limit the use of dangerous utensils like knives or blenders
  • Safe appliances: Supervise cooking and the use of appliances; check that the appliances are turned off after use; replace appliances like a kettle or toaster oven with ones that automatically shut off
  • Disable appliances when not in use: Disable appliances by unplugging them, removing fuses or knobs, or find a safety device which prevents the appliance from being turned on.
  • Check for spoiled foods: Regularly check the fridge and pantry to remove old, spoiled food and replace with fresh food
  • Cooking together: Cooking together allows you to give gentle reminders and monitor safety

Nutrition

Access to regular nutritious meals is a key element of independent living. When someone with dementia is unable to reliably provide meals for themselves independently it may be helpful to look at alternative ways that meals can be provided.  

Cooking alternatives:

  • Meal delivery: Have prepared meals delivered. There are a variety of private and community services available
  • Prepared meals from the store: Buy prepared meals at the grocery store or a local restaurant that can be warmed at home
  • Ask for help: Have family, friends or a professional caregiver help prepare meals
  • Attend seniors programs: Attend seniors community programs where meals are served
For more information and assistance on caregiving challenges in managing dementia at home, please call the Reitman Centre at 416-586-4800 ext. 5882 or send an email to [email protected], visit your local Alzheimer Society or access the Reitman Centre website.
By   Sarah Gillespie, MSW, RSW Mental Health Clinician   Cyril, Dorothy, Joel and Jill Reitman Centre for Alzheimer’s Support and Training & Outpatient Geriatric Psychiatry

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