Food as a Centerpiece in Meaningful Memories

Help people living with dementia connect with loved ones by using these preparation and dining strategies.
A young woman hugging and older woman

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 cookie dough off the beaters. You made name cards for the Thanksgiving table in anticipation of sitting next to a favorite 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 and laughter shared in the kitchen or at the table. They touch all of our senses and last a lifetime. For people in memory care, confusion and recognition problems take a toll. But 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 memory-care residents can take advantage of Cooking Up a Memory, a program designed around food that can help stimulate memories and bring people together. Gordon Food Service Healthcare Segment Manager Dana Fillmore, RD, CP-FS, advises using this tool’s strategies to improve the quality of care for someone living with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
For those with early-stage or mild memory loss, it encourages 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.

Variations can work for any community

Cooking Up a Memory offers residents and their loved ones an activity built around food and friendship. For the care community, there are many ways to make it available. Use it as a tailgate party associated with an event. Try it as a holiday or a birthday. Do it as an opportunity to prepare and serve seasonal foods. Revisit a resident’s favorite meal or a traditional family creation. All it takes is a little imagination and the right food.
The program can be adjusted for different levels of memory care. It can be done 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). It also can be designed to work in communities with limited or no kitchen availability, Fillmore says. The goal is preparing or sharing a meal and spending time together, so adjust the program to fit a resident’s abilities or the community’s capacity. It can be as easy or as involved as you wish—use prepared ingredients that residents can assemble or supervise as recipes are created from scratch.
At Holland Home in Grand Rapids, Michigan,  Recreation Therapist Brenda Gentry says connecting with residents through food is a big part of her program.
“There are physical benefits for residents who stir pots of soup or mix dough, and there are social benefits from sharing and participating,” Gentry says.
Gentry recalls a resident named Catherine who recalled with fondness the days when she made a treat called church-window fudge cookies, a chewy chocolate cookie topped with colorful marshmallows to resemble stained-glass windows. During the holiday season, Gentry and the Holland Home staff worked with Catherine to recreate the cookies, which she then made to share with the staff.
“People in memory care don’t lose the sense of wanting to share and give to people,” Gentry says. “We were like a second family to Catherine, and this helped her—and helps all residents—bring back good memories.”
To make Cooking Up a Memory easier to establish, Gordon Food Service has developed two approaches—with step-by-step plans—that are sure to build warm memories residents and loved ones can enjoy again and again.

Cooking up your memory (early-stage dementia)

For these residents, 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. Here’s how to do it:
1. Market the activity. Advertise the possibility of Cooking Up a Memory to raise awareness for residents and visitors. There is a promotional flyer and template that will encourage participation, and customers can download it by visiting Gordon Experience > Resources > Memory Care. 
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. Collect fees, if needed.
3. Prepare your staff. Schedule trained staffers to assist and communicate the policy for sharing food with other residents. This ensures appropriate food safety measures are taken.

Cooking as a memory (mid- to late-stage dementia)

For these residents you will need to limit the number of possible recipes and supply the ingredients. As they are able, the residents and guests assemble the recipe, while the foodservice staff handles the cooking or baking. Here’s how to do it:
1. Market the activity. (See above)
2. Choose recipes. Focus on the culture of your residents and use 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.
3. Create a process. Communicate time slots and let the resident or guest reserve a time and select a recipe. Collect fees, if needed.
4. 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 appropriate food-safety steps are followed.
5. Play an active role. Have ingredients measured and pre-prepped. Then 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. Cooking up a memory provides a similar type of connection, Fillmore says. 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.
“Many people remember cooking with mom in the kitchen or being around the family table—those are some of our most enduring memories,” she says. “To get a chance to do that again in some small way can be very rewarding—for the loved ones, the resident and the memory care process.”

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