Food as a Centrepiece in Meaningful Memories

Elderly ladies

Help people living with dementia eat better and make food connections by using these preparation and dining strategies.

Everyone has a fond food-related memory. There was that time when you helped mom out in the kitchen and she steadied your hand as you added spice by the teaspoon to a simmering pot of soup. During holiday baking season, you couldn’t wait to lick cake batter off the beaters. You made name cards for the Thanksgiving table in anticipation of sitting next to a favourite aunt and catching up on the past year.

Food memories are things we hold onto, and all it takes is the scent of cinnamon rolls baking in the oven to rekindle warm thoughts of laughter shared in the kitchen or at the table. Food touches all of our senses and the memories last a lifetime.

At Whitehorn Village Retirement Community in Calgary, General Manager Cindy Rota says senses, especially smell, play a big role in stimulating residents’ appetites.

“The senses may be affected by medications or diminish as the memory fails, but they always stick with you,” Rota says. “Taste, touch and smell—are critical.”

Motivation to eat makes a difference

Executive Chef Julie Williams agrees that smell opens the way to excitement, especially among the 25 Whitehorn residents in some stage of memory care. She says toasters and coffee makers are strategically located to emanate aromas in areas where residents congregate. On days when the staff works with residents to bake cookies or bread, the familiar aroma triggers good memories for everyone in the 195-resident community.

“We have one resident who just loves the smell of food in the oven or on the stove,” Williams says. “Even though she can’t use the utensils to eat and usually just gets a sandwich, the aroma is what makes the mealtime experience meaningful.”

For people in memory care, confusion and recognition problems take a toll. It’s easy for those living with dementia to think they have just eaten, or to feel full even though it’s been hours since the last meal. Particular foods and the aromas they give off can help people get excited about mealtime, even if they’re not big eaters.

“We use a lot of fresh herbs in our cooking—they release smells that elevate appetites,” Williams says. “There are some residents who can only get many of their nutrients through milkshakes or special diets, but the smells from the kitchen drive the desire to eat.”

Making connections with food

Aroma is important because dementia and medications can rob some residents of their ability to taste food. But aroma and taste are not the only ways people can experience food.

Whitehorn Director of Care Gurleen Gill says therapists work with residents three or four times a week to prepare food as a life-enrichment activity. Baking bread and making cookies are two of the favourite activities. Residents who are able collect the ingredients and take part in the cooking process—cracking eggs, measuring flour, kneading or stirring dough.

That’s partly because cooking and eating are an enduring part of every resident’s life, and it provides an opportunity for care communities to use food as a way to connect people, places and sensations.

Communities with early stage memory-care residents can call upon food to encourage the use of language, thought, navigation, organizational and other skills that build self-confidence. For those with more advanced memory-care needs, it provides the bond of togetherness and sharing.

Learn ways food can work for any community

You might want to try an activity similar to Whitehorn’s bread and cookie baking experiences. It’s possible that residents and their loved ones can take part together. Try a picnic associated with an event. Try it as a holiday or a birthday gathering. Do it as an opportunity to prepare and serve seasonal foods. Revisit a resident’s favourite meal or a traditional family creation. All it takes is a little imagination and the right food.

Adjust your activity depending on the resident’s level of memory care. It can be done as a group activity with residents (i.e., decorating cakes or cookies), or it can include residents and their families (i.e., a family lasagna dinner tradition).

Gordon Food Service suggests an approach—with step-by-step plans—to get residents in either early or later stages of dementia involved in food-related activities. It doesn’t matter if your community has limited or no kitchen availability. The goal is preparing or sharing a meal and spending time together, and you can adjust the program to fit a resident’s abilities or your community’s capacity.

Cook up treasured food memories

For residents in early stages of dementia, plan the assembly of a full recipe. If you have a kitchen available, let guests or residents reserve space to prepare a special dish. If your kitchen is not available, consider ways they can assemble ingredients you will cook for them. For residents with mid- or late-stage dementia you will need to limit recipes, supply the ingredients and even help assemble the food, while your foodservice staff handles the cooking or baking. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Market the activity. Advertise the possibility a cooking activity to raise awareness for residents and visitors. Post a promotional flyer on a bulletin board or a dining room doorway
  2. Create a process. Communicate available time slots and allow the resident or guests to reserve a time that includes use of the kitchen or prep area and the dining room (or other eating location). Also allow the resident or guest to indicate what recipe will be used, listing the ingredients they will bring and equipment they will need. For residents with later stages of dementia, choose a recipe by focusing on the culture of your community. Come up with recipes that can be assembled in a non-kitchen area. Examples include pigs in a blanket, no-bake cookies, chocolate-dipped pretzels or gingerbread houses. Collect fees, if needed.
  3. Plan ahead. Your foodservice staff must buy ingredients and reserve the kitchen or prep space as well as the eating area. You’ll also want to schedule trained staffers to assist so that appropriate food-safety steps are followed.
  4. Play an active role. Have ingredients measured and pre-prepped, if necessary, and help the resident and guests assemble the ingredients. Finally, serve the resident and guests when finished.

Make lasting memories at a difficult time

Research has shown that light therapy, music therapy, reading therapy and other activities improve the lives of people in memory care. They provide cognitive stimulation and make a connection to some part of the resident’s pre-dementia past. Food, with all of the senses it touches, provides a similar type of connection. It ties to the resident’s food memories and, at the same time, allows friends and loved ones to interact and strengthen bonds during a difficult time.