When my mother Naomi was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010 at the age of 70, my father, Jack, actually started cooking for the first time in his life. Through the painful realization that we were losing our beloved mom and wife, we found humor in the situation. My father had actually entered the kitchen! This post is an excerpt from The Lost Kitchen: An Alzheimer’s Memoir and Cookbook, which chronicles the story of how my family struggled to maintain balance—and laughter—in the face of a devastating diagnosis.
Here’s something you many not know. Loss of smell may be an early warning sign for Alzheimer’s and cognitive impairment.
When I go on line to learn more, I discover that much of what we experience in the context of the disease is uniquely personal.
Smell is not the only sense that is affected by the disease. Alzheimer’s sufferers are often sensitive to noise. I’ve noticed this with Mom. When we sit in an overly noisy restaurant where lots of conversations vie with ours, Mom experiences an overload and becomes quiet; it’s too much for her to take in. If we are sitting in a quiet place, Mom is distracted by background noises—a passing motorcycle or voices in the street—that the rest of us manage to filter out without difficulty. The websites tell me noises can affect individuals differently, from mild frustration to an exaggerated response. Reactions include anger, uncertainty, confusion, yelling, pacing, and other repetitive behaviors.
Mom’s vision is doing surprisingly well. Her most recent eye exam, after four years with the same prescription, showed no sign of deterioration. That doesn’t mean she isn’t experiencing problems. Although there may be nothing physically wrong with their eyes, people with Alzheimer’s may no longer be able to interpret accurately what they see because of brain changes. Their sense of depth and perception may be altered and can cause safety concerns.
The sense of taste also changes or fails. This Shabbat, my parents and my brother Simon came for a visit. It seemed that everyone enjoyed the delicious food except for Mom. “It’s tasteless,” she said of the sweet doughy challah, rich onion soup, and even the amazing mousse dessert. Perhaps it was the noise at the table, but Mom seemed distant and unhappy during the meal. I know she was confused about where she was. She wanted to know who lived here, and when she could go home.
We had some joyful moments, too. We went to synagogue together, and Mom sang the prayers in her lovely soprano. At home, Mom sang torch songs with my daughter, who seems to have inherited her grandmother's voice. And we enjoyed looking at our photo albums, including my oldest son’s wedding album.
Mom was also in top form.
“Did you know that Miriam turned 50 this summer?” Simon asked.
“Shhh, don’t tell her,” Mom whispered conspiratorially.
I was right next to her, and we all laughed at Mom’s clever response.
Simon's goal in visiting Mom was to spend as much time with her as he could. In this respect, his visit was a success. He left yesterday, after a week of interactions and outings that they both enjoyed tremendously. Simon will keep those memories safe for her because Mom can’t remember that he was ever here.
I know how Simon feels. Sometimes we wonder if the visits are more for Mom or for us. Will there be a time where we'll decide it's not worth visiting if Mom doesn't know us or can't respond to us? Right now, we're far from that scenario. I’ve mentioned previously how fulfilled I am to spend time with Mom. It gives shape and meaning to my life on a daily and weekly basis.
In honor of the start of Chanukah this week, here’s a simple, tasty applesauce recipe. Use it to sweeten your potato latkes.
For the record, I used three types of apples: Jonathan, Pink Lady and Golden Delicious. If you don’t want to make so much applesauce, halve the recipe. I’ve played around with amounts and varieties of apples, and I am always happy with the results.
20 apples peeled, cored and chopped (approx. 5 lbs or 2 kilo)
3-4 Tbsp lemon juice
¼ cup date honey
½ tsp salt
½ to 1 cup water
3 cinnamon sticks
Place peeled chopped apples, honey, salt, water, lemon juice and cinnamon sticks in a large pot. Bring to a boil then simmer on low heat for up to an hour. When apples are cooked through, remove cinnamon sticks. Use a potato masher to mash the apples so that it becomes a slightly chunky sauce. Serve hot (or cold) with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
About the Author: Miriam Green writes a weekly blog at thelostkichen.org that chronicles through prose, poetry and recipes her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Her unpublished cookbook, “The Lost Kitchen: An Alzheimer’s Memoir and Cookbook” is filled with advice for the novice cook, easy and elegant recipes and home-spun caregiver advice. Her poem, “Questions My Mother Asked, Answers My Father Gave Her,” won the 2013 Reuben Rose Poetry prize. Miriam is a 20-year resident of Beer Sheva, Israel, and a mother of three.