Sharing a kitchen with another cook can be trying for some people. Sharing a kitchen with a person who has dementia can be more than trying; it can be unsafe.
Cooking and eating are basic daily functions for us all, and since we strive to provide as normal an existence as possible to our loved ones with dementia, if you share a home, sharing the kitchen may need to be part of the experience. However, safety for everyone must be taken into account.
Since the national Alzheimer's Association specializes in tricky issues that can have a steep learning curve for family caregivers, I contacted Ruth Drew, MS, LPC the Director of Family and Information Services for the organization.
Drew says that taking a person-centered approach can be effective in addressing the issue of kitchen safety in the home of a person with Alzheimer's. "Some people with Alzheimer's are happy to be part of the action, which could mean washing dishes, helping mix cookie batter or peeling carrots," she said.
While family caregivers already know about the personal history of their loved one, if a hired caregiver is involved, he or she should get to know the background of the person.
"Asking questions such as what did the person with Alzheimer's used to enjoy, what does this person like to do now, and what is this person capable of doing today will help guide family members and caregivers in making decisions about safety, including how a person with Alzheimer's can continue to be active in the kitchen," Drew said. "Depending on the level of function of the person with Alzheimer's, you may need to take measures to ensure safety for everyone in the home."
Drew suggests that caregivers secure knives and other sharp implements in drawers with safety locks, put toxic chemicals in cabinets with safety locks, remove knobs from stoves, position the person with Alzheimer's away from a hot stove, lower the hot water temperature level to prevent burns, and remove throw rugs to minimize risk for falls.
Is this all worth the trouble?
It's inconvenient and frustrating to lock up knives and other dangerous objects, but taking these extra steps to ensure safety in what could be a dangerous room is worth it. It's far easier to take preventive measures than to cope with a mess—or worse yet, a tragedy—afterward.
What about the food safety issue?
When people have dementia, much of the learned behavior toward food safety may be forgotten. They'll do what comes naturally. It may not have bothered you when your teenage son drank milk from the carton, but somehow seeing your mother do the same can be upsetting. Licking peanut butter off of a knife and reusing the knife in jelly? Not healthy.
Yet, your loved one with dementia isn't contaminating food on purpose. He or she simply doesn't have the memory or judgment to consider if this natural tendency, which may actually seem efficient to them, is acceptable behavior. Yet this behavior can drive a family caregiver to the breaking point.
As with other dementia behaviors, the caregiver has to remind herself or himself who has the disease. Scolding, arguing or shouting "I told you…." will only make matters worse. This is not your teenager who needs to be reminded to be civil. This is, sadly, your mother who cannot remember how to do things correctly. Redirecting and limiting access may be your only tools.
Rachel Adelson, science writer and the author of "Staying Power: Age-Proof Your Home for Comfort, Safety and Style," and blogger on aging at home for the Huffington Post, has this to say:
"It can be hard to change behaviors, especially in people whose brains no longer learn very well. It's easier and less frustrating to change the environment...Labeling, posting signs, using written procedures, using timers, using more pre-cooked foods and so on may help reduce the risks, but as cognitive impairment progresses these measures can become less effective. It becomes important to share and supervise the cooking, to make it harder to reduce exposure to the riskier tasks."
As Alzheimer's progresses, tactics must change
Since Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, kitchen work, as with other aspects of living, must change with it. More safety controls and more supervision will become necessary with time. Keeping in mind that distraction and re-direction may become necessary when your loved one wants to share the kitchen but has limited ability to do so safely may eventually be your only defense.