This is a guest post by Michelle Seitzer, senior blogger, SeniorsforLiving.com
Cooking is a full-body, all-sensory experience. Everything about it is engaging, and it doesn’t have to be a hobby for this to be true. The brain is activated: reading or recalling a recipe from memory, gathering the necessary ingredients, timing all the elements, organizing and prioritizing tasks. The body is on the move: hands kneading dough, arms and upper body reaching for the spice rack, feet shuffling across the floor between the stovetop, countertop and sink. All the while, the scents and sounds of preparation (boiling water, a sizzling saucepan of onions, the wafting aroma from the oven) and the warmth of the stove fills the kitchen, spilling out into adjoining rooms. And of course, every cook and assistant must taste test their concoctions along the way.
These truths make the case for cooking as a wonderfully well-rounded activity for seniors— whether at home or in senior living. Some may enjoy cooking alone, but group cooking (with other residents, grandchildren, friends, relatives, staff members or caregivers) adds the measurable benefit of socialization. Though some tasks will need to be modified according to ability or mobility, there is something that everyone can contribute, and an activity that empowers all participants is always worth the effort.
As a former activities director at an assisted living community, I operated on two foundational principles:
- Sometimes the best activities were the spontaneous ones, but the planned ones had to be as simple as possible.
- If there were too many moving parts—too many supplies to gather, too many steps in the process—it didn’t work, both for me and for the participants.
However, cooking can only have tremendous positive outcomes with advanced planning and preparation. No, you don’t have to cut the veggies ahead of time or roll out the dough before you arrive. Those are jobs the participants can do. However, having all the ingredients and tools you need on hand when it’s time to begin the cooking session will prevent participants from getting restless or frustrated (and keep you from feeling frazzled and scattered). Coordinate with the food service staff to make sure you have what you need; integrate the purchase of other ingredients not in stock with your monthly resident shopping trip (this is a great way to stretch the activity out over time).
Another way to build on the activity throughout the month is to schedule other events that connect to the cooking session. These ideas can easily translate to a home setting as well:
1. Spend time gathering recipes.
2. Schedule an afternoon reminiscing, chat over tea and coffee or milk and cookies. Invite residents to bring their favorite recipes, photos and stories about their kitchen, dining and food-related memories.
3. Plan another chat, during which you discuss family food traditions.
4. Read about other cultural holiday feasts and how they prepare food differently.
5. Work with the dining staff to host an around-the-world dinner.
6. Create a bulletin board or devote a corner of the activities room for posting and sharing favorite recipes or food memories, giving residents who prefer not to participate in group activities the opportunity to submit.
7. Host a food-related trivia session or Bingo night
8. Ask residents who like to write to make handwritten copies of the recipe that the group will be creating together. Share these cards with family members or staff.
9. Choose a restaurant for a special outing that corresponds with that month’s cooking theme.
10. Volunteer to help with a local food drive and engage residents in sorting donations.
11. Do a “guess that spice or herb” game: Bring in a number of fragrant spices and fresh herbs in which residents have to guess blindfolded by scent, touch or taste.
12. On the day of the cooking session, invite family members to join you. It may help to schedule the sessions on Saturdays so you get more family participants, who will be grateful for something to do when they visit. Have them bring the grandkids, too! These family members can offer the extra pairs of hands, eyes and ears you’ll likely need.
13. Watch a cooking show—such as the current hit “Top Chef,” or a classic, such as Julia Child’s), or a movie about food, such as “Julie & Julia,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Ratatouille” or “Chocolat”.
14. If you bake cookies, plan an afternoon to separate the dozens and wrap them into small gift packages that can be distributed to residents who are not able to be as active because of illness or other issues.
15. Washing, drying and putting away dishes, or sorting silverware, can be a soothing ritual for those with Alzheimer’s, or for those who just feel they’d like to do something familiar, something helpful.
The possibilities are endless, aren’t they? Try some of these suggestions this month and see how powerful the act of cooking and food-related activities can be. And please leave us a comment with more tips on how to live actively through cooking activities.
Michelle Seitzer spent 10 years filling various roles at assisted living communities, then worked as a public policy coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association in Pennsylvania before settling down as a full-time freelance writer. Seitzer also served as a long-distance caregiver for her beloved grandfather, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 2009. She is a blogger for SeniorsforLiving.com and a co-moderator of the first #ElderCareChat on Twitter. Join us for the next #EdlerCareChat on Twitter, June 20.