Cooking up new connections for my aging mom

The dread seized me in early October.

Thanksgiving was normally my favorite holiday, and I had always looked forward to seeing my parents from Memphis and my brother and his family from Chicago. But the year my mother showed up without her famous butterscotch brownies, bourbon balls and date crumbs, I understood that her dementia was progressing and everything was changing.

Instead of working beside my brother and me in the kitchen, instead of laughingly (and bossily) setting the table with me, Mom huddled on the sofa, next to Dad, loath to let him out of her sight. She turned to him for everything: to explain the food on her plate, to remind her of our names and to reassure her that he’d be right there beside her. Her vulnerability and confusion were devastating, and I’d felt exhausted, lonely and weepy the whole long weekend.

I felt alone, but of course I wasn’t: There were 15 million family/friend caregivers helping the 5 million Americans who have dementia.

The next holiday season, I vowed things would be different. I would find ways to engage Mom so she could contribute to the meal. My brother Dan was head cook and I was a sous chef, so I decided to involve Mom with my vegetable preparation.

Since the kitchen was small and crowded, my parents joined me at the dining room table. I reminded Mom how to snap green beans, and she sat beside me, contentedly breaking beans. When it came to slicing mushrooms, we both took dull dinner knives and cut away. My father supervised, eating cashews and reminiscing.

“Fran, remember our first Thanksgiving together?” he asked.

Mom smiled. I called my brother into the room; I knew he loved hearing this old story.

“Manchester,” she said.

“That’s right. We lived in a little apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was before Debbie was born.”

“It ruined our oven.”

Dad beamed and waited to hear if Mom had more to say.

She looked at him expectantly and he continued the story.

“Fran had been in the kitchen all morning,” Dad continued. “Right before our guests arrived, we heard a loud popping sound. Fran rushed into the kitchen and I was right behind her. The oven was splattered with turkey and dressing, and the bones of the bird were just about bare. Fran had left the innards in the turkey, sewed it shut, and the bird exploded. We had a vegetarian Thanksgiving that year.”

All of us laughed.

“I think of that story every time I make a turkey,” Dan said.

“You’re a good cook,” Mom said.

We resumed our mushroom slicing. Mom seemed at ease, which meant that Dad was also relaxed. When we were finished, we folded napkins together. Then I brought in fruit; Mom picked grapes off their stems and transferred blueberries and raspberries into the big salad bowl.

“Remember that time we all went to pick blackberries?” I asked.

“Where?” Mom said.

“On that big farm right outside Collierville,” Dad answered.

“A bee chased me,” I said.

“Debbie was running around and that bee just kept after her,” Dad said.

“What did I do?” Mom asked.

“You laughed. We all laughed,” Dad said.

That afternoon, friends joined us for our Thanksgiving feast. When they praised the meal, I introduced the sous team and was pleased to include Mom. Mom smiled and I took her hand.

“Did I help?” she quietly asked me.

“You sure did.”

“I’m glad,” she said. “I always like to help.”

After dinner, my brother brought out a tray of sweets; he’d baked all of Mom’s favorites. Mom picked a date crumb and a butterscotch brownie.

“These are good,” she said, after her initial bites. She smiled at me and patted my hand.

“They ought to be,” I said. They’re your recipes.”

Deborah Shouse is the author of “Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.” Visit her blog at


Food preparation offers a wonderful way to sit together, work together and connect.

Create a relaxing atmosphere, including a comfortable place to sit and a minimum of outside noise.

Select simple and safe tasks you can do together: snapping beans, tearing lettuce for a salad, picking grapes off the stems.

Find easy recipes you can make together, such as fruit salad, lettuce salad or sweet potato casserole, with a million tiny marshmallows on top.

As you work, use the foods and the occasion as catalysts for conversation and reminiscing.

Even if your loved one can’t help prepare food, he or she can still enjoy handling fruits and vegetables and being part of the action and the conversation.