How Do You Cook With Dementia?

When your loved one receives a diagnosis of dementia, you may assume they will no longer be able to do some of the things they once enjoyed. Take cooking, for example. Many older adults have spent years perfecting the craft of food preparation, cooking, and dining with their families. But our mind may immediately think of the risks of operating a stove or other appliance.

Key takeaways:

Yet, there are advantages to your loved one continuing to help with meal preparation, as long as you consider a few safety tips to guide the process.

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Activities of daily living

One of the triggers that alert families that someone may be in the early stages of cognitive impairment is the inability to prepare a meal. You may have concerns when an older adult who has previously been a master in the kitchen begins to forget ingredients. You may also find they mix up steps to organize a meal and become very overwhelmed.

Instrumental activities of daily living, or “IADLs,” are complex tasks necessary for someone to live independently. For example, IADLs include cooking, shopping, cleaning, and transportation. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the deterioration of IADLs is often an early sign of a cognitive concern. Of course, if you notice problems in this area, you need to contact your healthcare provider to conduct a comprehensive assessment to determine the cause of the decline.

Warning signs

While forgetting an ingredient in a recipe may be relatively safe, actions such as failing to turn off a burner or leaving food in a heated oven are dangerous fire hazards. Often the direction to families is to remove the fuse or unplug and disconnect the appliance. Some signs that may indicate your loved one is having problems in the kitchen include:

  • Burn marks on the stovetop or oven, including where pots have boiled over.
  • Food spoiled in the fridge.
  • Evidence of water on the floor where a sink has overflowed due to running taps.
  • Burns or cuts on your loved one’s arms from kitchen accidents.

Benefits of cooking

Studies have shown that participating in activities stimulating the mind is therapeutic in someone with dementia. Activity is beneficial when this person engages with other people, and it can reduce agitation and responsive behaviors. Socialization is also a factor in slowing the progression of cognitive decline. In addition, stimulating the senses, such as with the aroma of cooked food, can evoke past pleasant memories and stimulate a diminished appetite. Besides, the act of preparing food “together” increases social interaction and the sense of family or community.

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Many Alzheimer’s programs include cooking activities for that reason. With some preventative safety measures, cooking can be an enjoyable and therapeutic activity for your loved one in a group setting or at home with supervision.

Kitchen safety tips

  1. Safety first. Make sure there are functioning smoke detectors and a portable fire extinguisher.
  2. Declutter. Ensure the kitchen area is free from clutter and eliminate scatter mats.
  3. Clothing. See that your loved one has dressed appropriately, including non-skid footwear. Avoid loose-fitting clothing that can catch on door handles or burn when near the stove.
  4. Ensure good lighting. Sometimes older adults will use low-wattage light bulbs to save money on electric bills.
  5. Reduce the temperature. You can reduce the hot water tank temperature to reduce the risk of burns (120 F). You may wish to label the hot and cold taps.
  6. Cut the power. When not in use, disconnecting the power source for the stove, microwave, or other small appliances may be necessary. Locks are also available for appliances at your local hardware store.
  7. Alarms. Newer remote technology is available from companies such as Google and Alexa to alert you, as a family member, of an activated alarm or a temperature change in your loved one’s home.

Safer food prep activities

Promoting independence in your loved one while cooking can improve their mood and sense of well-being. Besides, carefully considering and assessing their abilities will help ensure the experience is positive. For example, avoid the use of knives or the operation of a blender. Instead, think about using simple recipes with few preparation steps. Also, you may wish to consider foods that need to be “assembled,” like making a sandwich or applying toppings to mini pizzas.

Ten ideas for safer food prep activities

  1. Washing fruit and vegetables.
  2. Removing tops off strawberries or peeling bananas.
  3. Breaking string beans or shucking corn.
  4. Measuring ingredients for a recipe.
  5. Stirring ingredients in a bowl.
  6. Kneading or rolling dough.
  7. Icing a cake.
  8. Scooping cookie dough onto the cookie sheet.
  9. Using cookie cutters to make cookies.
  10. Preparing foods like perogies or hand-rolling cabbage rolls.

Working with your loved one may be challenging, and you could find your patience wears thin from time to time. Connecting with your local Alzheimer’s Association will provide the support, counseling, and education you need. Adult day programs at the Alzheimer’s Association may also provide the activation and socialization your loved one needs while engaging in activities such as meal preparation.

You must monitor your loved one's capabilities as you continue working with them during meal preparation. Because dementia is a progressive condition, there will be a decline in your loved one’s abilities as time goes on. Therefore having the opportunity to enrich your loved one’s life by providing them with an achievable task will maximize their independence as long as possible and increase their sense of well-being.

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