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Sharing Family Meals Can Help Those With Dementia Connect

A family in Georgia shares a meal with a U.S. education volunteer.
A family in Georgia shares a meal with a U.S. education volunteer.
Sharing Family Meals Can Help Those With Dementia Connect
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Many Americans gather together as families and spend time with each other over the winter holidays. It can be difficult when a family member suffers from memory loss.

Tim Hollingsworth knows. The well-known American chef learned to cook at his mother’s side when he was growing up. Hollingsworth would measure ingredients to help her make dinner. He would talk with his mother and taste the food as they cooked.

Today, he is the winner of “The Final Table” competition on Netflix, the media production company. He also is the owner of Otium, a restaurant in Los Angeles, California.

Hollingsworth still cooks with his mother, but it is different now. She struggles with memory loss. She sits with him as he prepares meals from her favorite recipes. These include recipes for “comfort foods”— ones that fill your stomach and warm your heart with happy memories, while filling a home with a pleasant smell.

His mother does not cook anymore. But being present at the cooking and eating foods she may remember helps close the distance that dementia can create.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease affect older people’s memories. Over time, patients lose their memories, piece by piece. The first to go are usually the newer memories. The older memories, from when they were young, can be the last to disappear.

Being with family and doing things together can help.

When we make and share food with others, “we feel a sense of usefulness and belonging,” says Sheila Molony. She studies the aging process and is a professor of nursing at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

Family members with dementia can be involved in meal preparation or setting the table. That may give them some sense of peace and what Molony calls “at-homeness.” It helps them feel like part of a family or community.

Kim Borghoff and her family kept their tradition of Sunday meals together as her husband and his father were both struggling with Alzheimer’s disease at the same time.

Both men were found to have Alzheimer’s several years ago. That is when she began making sure that every other Sunday, the whole family had dinner together -- just like they did when their children were growing up.

What they ate was not important. It was instead the familiar and comforting experience of sitting around the table together, even after the family had finished eating. It helped both men regain some of their old personalities, even if just for a short time.

This year, the Alzheimer’s Association has been spreading the word about the connecting power of mealtime through their Around the Table program. Along with Hollingsworth, the group asked other chefs to help. They include Hugh Acheson, chef and owner of two restaurants in the state of Georgia.

Acheson’s father, a former professor, developed Alzheimer’s about five years ago. Sharing meals was always a part of their relationship, but it is different for Hugh Acheson as his father’s memory slowly disappears.

His father was a single parent, raising four children alone, while working full-time. Acheson says his father did not have much time to cook complicated meals. Now, the son might cook a good steak and simply add a fresh, green salad as a side dish.

Acheson says a good meal made with love can bring out a person with dementia and bring them real joy.

“We make memories over good food that’s been cared for,” he says, food that has been made with “thought and love.”

I’m Anne Ball.

And I'm Bryan Lynn.

Melissa Rayworth wrote this story for the Associated Press. Anne Ball adapted the story for VOA Learning English. The editor was George Grow.

Do you have a family member with dementia? How are you dealing with this issue? What do you think of this story? Write to us in the comments section below.

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Words in This Story

chef – n. a professional cook who usually is in charge of a kitchen in a restaurant

ingredient – n. one of the things that are used to make a food, product, etc.

recipe – n. a set of instructions for making food

familiar – adj. frequently seen, heard, or experienced

complicated – adj. hard to understand, explain or deal with

steak – n. a thick, flat piece of meat and especially beef