There has always been an extraordinary connection between food and memories. Think of a favorite snack that you used to share and sometimes even fight about with your siblings when you were little. Recall a dish that your mom would cook when the fever hits you. Try to picture grandma’s special dessert and remember how the whole family raved about it every Christmas. It’s a good bet that you can still remember how it tasted like, smelled like, looked like, and how it made you feel.
And while people living with Dementia—a deterioration in the brain that impairs a person’s ability to think, remember, make decisions and perform daily activities normally—suffer from memory loss, food can be a great way to make them feel a sense of familiarity, routine, and belongingness.
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, particularly affects short-term memory. This means that the person forgets the most recent events such as what they ate yesterday, the last photo they’ve seen, or the conversations that took place earlier. Hence, they usually ask the same questions and repeat their statements. Unfortunately, as the condition progresses, it leads to slowly forgetting even the long-term memories (amnesia). Eventually, they will not remember birthdays, weddings, or the names of loved ones.
But despite being incurable, we don’t have to succumb to hopelessness. The good thing about food is that it can trigger deep memories and evoke positive feelings. Sheila Molony, Ph.D., is a gerontology researcher and a nursing professor who believes that letting the person with dementia help in meal preparation or setting the table, can provide a sense of self, usefulness, and belongingness. She calls it a feeling of “at-homeness.”
Whether the sufferer is at home with the family or staying in a home health and hospice facility, they should be treated as someone who is competent enough to tear the lettuce, fold the napkins, or peel a banana. Let them accomplish easy and uncomplicated tasks.
Do not let them use sharp objects such as knives or blenders. While we want them to feel a sense of independence, their safety should be the utmost priority. It should not be expected that they remember even the most basic recipes even though they used to cook in the past. Make sure that all appliances are turned off when not in use.
More often than not, the meal on the table is not more important than the company you are sharing it with. Enjoying mealtime as a family and making it a routine can make a family member with dementia feel a sense of normalcy and ordinariness. They might not recall actual memories, but they will somehow recall how they felt and how they used to act during such wonderful times. It will somehow make them feel that they are not different. Of course, exerting that extra effort to make the meal more appetizing and flavorful can increase the chances of triggering positive memories—especially if the dish is significant in their most active years.
In a hospice, it is a practice that the residents with dementia eat together and share the same table. This is a good opportunity to encourage them to interact along with their respective caregivers by their side. For those who do not have the appetite or motivation to eat, letting them join others at the table can prompt them to have more fluid and food intake. It is more beneficial for their health instead of letting them eat alone in their room.
Dealing with the Effects of Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia
A person with Alzheimer’s Disease and suffering from Dementia probably feels confused and helpless more than anyone. They are probably sorry for themselves for not being able to perform tasks without other people’s help. A person suffering from Dementia loses their memories piece by piece which makes them feel that they are losing a bit of themselves, too. They may get irritated by others easily, or they may be difficult to understand and to know what they want. But this should not be taken personally.
Instead, we can help them feel a little better by continuously assisting them in their daily activities, guiding them in remembering details, and providing them with an environment that encourages a sense of personhood. We can still continue doing things that they used to enjoy even if it is as simple as preparing a meal and eating dinner together.