With its comforting, familiar smells of cooking and baking, the kitchen can be a reassuring environment for a person with dementia. However, it is a place of potential dangers, from sharp objects to hot temperatures to spilt liquids. You can take several steps to try and alleviate some of these risks so the person can be both happy and safe in the kitchen.
Some of the principles that govern designing a dementia friendly kitchen are those that you would apply in any part of a dementia friendly home. You need to make sure it is easy to navigate, that potential hazards are removed or covered, and that the person has safe opportunities to engage with their environment, preferably with stimuli to activate all of their senses.
For many people with dementia, new appliances can be unfamiliar and confusing. When furnishing your kitchen, the oven, fridge, and other white goods should be visible (not hidden behind cupboard doors) and easily recognisable. More traditional designs will make the space more comfortable for the person living with dementia and avoid any complications if they might face in trying to navigate modern technology.
When it comes to cupboards, a person with dementia may become distressed if they cannot quickly find what they are looking for in the kitchen. One way to alleviate this is to provide clear-fronted cupboard doors that allow the contents to be easily viewed. A transparent view into the fridge or a cupboard that holds food can also tempt the person to eat, which they may otherwise forget to do.
Another way to make cupboards easier to navigate is to provide labels on every door. They should be large and clear, with words and pictures to make them easier to understand, and in a colour that stands out from the door itself. Labels should also be used to distinguish the hot and cold taps, and any oven controls if the person is able to use the cooker.
Shiny, reflective and patterned surfaces can all cause distress and confusion for people with dementia. Try to avoid any surface that could create glare or shadows and keep floors and countertops plain in colour. If they are still shiny, you may want to cover them with a mat or cloth, although you should avoid patterns again. Blinds or curtains should be closed in the evening to prevent windows from becoming reflective, and the area as a whole should be clearly lit with electric lighting after dark.
Other safety measures could include ensuring that any objects the person is likely to use are kept within easy reach, rather than on high shelves. Technology can be used to help monitor temperatures and to turn off taps if they are left running. You also need to consider whether the person can safely use the kitchen on their own or whether they should have supervision whenever they enter, especially if they are going to be using potentially dangerous appliances such as the oven and stove (you may want to leave these unplugged when not in use to prevent accidents).
Why is cooking good for people with dementia?
You may be concerned about the risk of burns, cuts, trips and slips in the kitchen, but there are still many ways in which being able to participate in food preparation can be beneficial to people with dementia. If you can implement adequate safeguards, such as providing supervision, then the kitchen can offer both practical and emotional support to improve a person with dementia's wellbeing and help slow the progression of their condition.
Trying to continue with activities that they once enjoyed is an important way for people with dementia to maintain practical skills and contribute to improved concentration, self-esteem and general mood. Losing interest in these activities is often an early sign of Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. If someone has enjoyed cooking for many years, then continuing to cook can help them stay engaged with the world around them and possibly even allow them to remain independent for longer.
It is not just about maintaining the physical ability to cook, although that is important. It is also about the emotional benefits of this kind of activity. The smells, textures, and tastes of the kitchen can recall memories of happier times, making the person feel calmer and happier and connected to the world around them. Cooking can also be a social experience, reducing isolation and encouraging communication with others.
Even if the person with Alzheimer's cannot follow a complex recipe or safely use the stove, even being given a small, repetitive task can have a powerful benefit. Being involved in the cooking process may also encourage them to eat their properly cooked meals, which is obviously good for their overall health, especially as people with dementia often have trouble maintaining a nutritious diet.
What can I cook with dementia patients?
There are ways to ensure that cooking is kept a safe and enjoyable experience for people with dementia, ensuring they have the opportunity to engage fully with every stage of the process. Most obviously, food preparation for cold meals does not involve the risks of using an oven. Fruit and salad can make bright, colourful plates with a variety of textures.
If preparing fruit, you can use apples and oranges that are comfortably familiar or introduce more exotic varieties that provide extra interest and can be talking points. As well as the flavour you can take the time to encourage the person to smell and feel it, meaning lots of opportunities for sensory engagement. Chopping and peeling can obviously be difficult if the person has mobility issues such as arthritis, but tools such as vegetable peelers can make the process simpler.
Food that comes in stages of preparation, such as sandwiches, can also be good for people with dementia because you can take it step by step. Breaking it down into slicing, buttering, filling and serving can make the entire process much more manageable. Make sure you continue to discuss the process right the way through.
One way you may bring comfort to a person with dementia is to remind them of happy memories from earlier in life before they developed the condition. In the case of food, this may mean serving fish and chips in a newspaper or delivering old-fashioned sweets in old-fashioned jars. Sensory triggers such as smell can be a powerful way to activate memories.
During celebratory occasions such as birthdays or Christmas, you have the opportunity to introduce more festive baking. Buy tubes of readymade icing that are easily squeezed out and use them for a cake-decorating session. It is a chance for residents to display their creativity and share a fun experience. Major calendar events or themed nights are also good opportunities for social interaction, with group meals for celebrations a way to make the entire cooking and eating process more enjoyable.
How involved a person with dementia can be with cooking is dependent on the severity of their symptoms and related issues they may experience, such as poor perception or mobility. Even if these symptoms are more severe, they can be involved in the simplest aspects of cooking.
Basic ways in which they can be involved may include stirring the pot or adding a teaspoon of seasoning. Perhaps they simply pour the gravy or cut the toast into soldiers. In some cases, they may enjoy just being present in the kitchen whilst someone else cooks, especially if they have opportunities to discuss what is happening and engage with the various colours, textures, smells and flavours that arise throughout the process.
You can also involve them in other aspects of preparing a meal, such as setting the table. After the meal, they can then assist in clearing the table, washing up and then putting things away again. This is another area that can be broken down into smaller, simpler stages - such as laying out placemats, then cutlery and crockery - and that should be easy to direct.
It is also important to emphasise the social aspects of cooking and eating. Everything from preparing the meal to sitting and dining together can be a shared experience, with opportunities for discussion around personal preferences, cultural differences and even memories of food experiences from years ago.
Catalyst Interiors can help you design a kitchen that best facilitates these kinds of social interactions and pleasant memories whilst ensuring that any necessary safety precautions are instituted. Our extensive experience as leaders in the field of designing dementia friendly care homes means we know exactly how to create rooms that are both practical and stylish, places where everyone can feel welcome and engaged, and all residents are protected from potential hazards.
We will work closely with you to ensure our designs are tailored to your specific needs, accounting for individual differences between people with dementia and the people who live with and care for them. This will enable you to provide a dementia-friendly kitchen for your loved ones or residents.