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Carry on in the kitchen

Living on your own when you have been living with someone else for over 50 years is a terrible shock and the loneliness can be crippling. When my dad died, one of the things I hadn’t really thought about was what my mum would eat. She’s always been an enthusiastic cook, and she has carried on doing her own shopping and cooking well into her 80s, taking pride in planning healthy meals for her and my dad, and often trying out new recipes. After dad died she ate with us, or went out with friends quite often, and my sister and I left several meals for her each week for a few months. It was only when I dropped in on her at supper time 6 months later and found her eating a supermarket sandwich that I talked to her about what she was eating – and took a look in her fridge. I was shocked to realise that she wasn’t cooking any more, and that she wasn’t even interested in thinking about food, beyond the necessity of eating something, anything.

I know now that this often happens after bereavement, and that many older people increasingly lose interest in cooking and in food in general. But I also know that a healthy diet remains as important in your 80s as in any other decade, and that its good to encourage someone like my mother to rediscover something of the passion she had for food previously – because its important to have interests and stimuli as the world, in so many ways, closes in on elderly people.

There are lots of reasons not to cook: ‘its not worth it just for me’, ‘its easier just to open a can/a packet/a ready meal’, ‘I’m too tired at the end of the day to cook’, ‘I end up throwing away lots of half used ingredients’. They are all valid, and there’s nothing wrong with a few ready meals in the freezer for when you really need one. But gradually my mother has started to plan meals again, to cook, to invite friends and family for simple meals. Sometimes her grandchildren join her to do some baking. She often cooks enough to be able to freeze a couple of portions for another day, and sometimes she makes cakes to give to others. It takes her longer than it used to, she is less adventurous and she doesn’t cook every day, but when she does it still gives her a lot of pleasure. There is more fresh food in her fridge, fruit in her basket, and many of the gastric problems she had started to suffer from seem to have gone away. She doesn’t think that’s a coincidence, and I am inclined to think she is right.

some ideas to encourage an elderly person to cook:

  • do it together. Maybe once or twice a month spend an hour or two cooking a couple of meals together, which can then be frozen in individual portions (use plastic boxes if you want them to go in a microwave later).
  • plan the week’s menus: talk about what they might eat during the week and how they might use some of the same ingredients twice (a small chicken could be roasted for at least 2 meals plus soup).
  • suggest they invite a friend round: even if it’s only for tea, and even if they don’t actually cook or bake for the occasion. Preparing food for others, even if its making a sandwich, can reignite a sense of food being worthwhile and sociable.
  • make sure the kitchen is still safe and practical: its worth checking that your parent or friend can still use their cooker safely – can they turn the knobs on and off easily, do they know how the oven and microwave operate?

If you have ideas or advice please share your experience with others in our forum.