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Cooking cuts through my mother's dementia

It's a cold, blustery day and I'm planning to cook a hearty beef stew with the help of my elderly mother. This may not sound remarkable, but it is when you consider she lives several hundred kilometres away in a complex care facility. With advanced vascular dementia, she spends much of her time roaming the halls in her wheelchair, asking the care aides if they've seen my father. He passed away two years ago.

Phone conversations with my mother have become difficult. The once inquisitive, lively and verbally skilled woman is no longer at the other end of the phone. She was known for her curiosity, always asking questions about what was going on in our household, and passing on tidbits of information about other family members.

As those inquiries dropped off, our conversations became increasingly one-sided. I tried to find things to babble on about, not knowing how much she was taking in. When questions were put to her, inevitably she would become confused and even embarrassed, unable to remember a recent visit from a grandchild or the gift I had sent last week. Phone visits were clearly a strain for us both.

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However, cooking has changed all that. A few months ago, while I was preparing a dish for a retro potluck dinner, the phone rang. A care aide had helped my mother dial my number. When I answered, I told her that I was looking for recipes for a jellied salad, the type she used to make. With amazing recall, she proceeded to tell me exactly what to do. I clicked the phone onto speaker mode and set it on the kitchen counter. My mother became her old, confident self, telling me to heat the water for the gelatin, drain the crushed pineapple, grate the carrots and chop the celery.

As I worked away, I reminded Mom of the many festive dinners from my childhood where her jellied salads were proudly displayed. Her long-term memory proved to be sharper than I had thought, and she happily recalled gatherings with friends and family and all the amazing dishes she had produced. It turned out to be a wonderful visit and there wasn't a single awkward moment.

Later, I e-mailed my four siblings, who live in various parts of British Columbia, recounting my phone conversation. This resulted in a string of e-mails about Mom's cooking and memories of favourite dishes: clam chowder with stone-ground oat cakes, warm from the oven; schnitzel and hot red cabbage salad with crispy bacon bits; beef stew thick with barley, potatoes and turnips; spareribs dripping in homemade barbecue sauce; crab casserole; fish cakes; crispy corn flake-coated chicken; and pork roasts drenched in sauerkraut. Desserts included rice pudding, blueberry pie, hot milk cake with brown sugar and coconut icing, pineapple upside-down cake and rhubarb custard.

The e-mails swirled around for several days, leaving us all appreciative of the fact that while growing up in northern B.C. in the sixties and seventies, we ate very well. Our mother stayed at home and our father brought in a modest income. Mom was raised in Southern Ontario where the farmers markets provided a bounty of fresh vegetables. She developed a love of all things green and leafy such as Swiss chard, kale, spinach, beet greens and butter lettuce. Even during the coldest days of January, when produce was pricey, there was a salad, coleslaw or fresh vegetable dish with every meal.

Dad's Scottish heritage reflected a love of fish of every kind, root vegetables, stone-ground oats, barley soups and whole grains. He was ahead of his time, shunning processed food and insisting on heavy rye and whole-grain breads, farm-raised chicken and beef and plenty of trout and game that he brought home from fishing and hunting trips. From June until September, his large garden produced huge quantities of lettuce, beets, radishes, carrots, beans, peas and his favourite, Walla Walla onions.

Thinking of the work that went into feeding a family of seven brought on a few pangs of guilt. While raising my daughters, dinners were often on the fly as we rushed to soccer practices and dance lessons. My husband had frequent dinner meetings and we sat down to eat together only two or three times a week.

In my defence, life was much different for my 86-year-old mother. Not working outside the home, she had time to plan and prepare lovely meals. It was her job and she took it seriously. Dinner was an important event where lively conversations took place while we eagerly ate everything on our plates, and it was rare that anyone missed it. The dinner hour pulled us together and it was clear that my mother derived great satisfaction from the work she put into cooking.

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Many women of my generation simply didn't have time to devote to meal preparation. We worked, rushed home, tried to make something nutritious, but often gave in to the convenience of chicken fingers and frozen burritos. I feel a sense of loss that the joys of hearty, home-cooked meals largely eluded us.

But now, with my daughters travelling post-university, life is far less hectic. I have the time to plan regular cooking visits with Mom, often choosing long-forgotten dishes from my siblings' list. I chop, mix and stir while Mom gives a few instructions. Best of all are the memories that the dishes pull from the recesses of her mind.

A pot roast and vegetables sit on the kitchen counter. As planned earlier, a care aide has mom in her room, waiting for my call. When she picks up the phone, I greet her. "Hi Mom, it's Ann. Are you ready to cook?"

Ann Diehl lives in Kamloops, B.C.

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