My mom used to be an excellent cook. Growing up, she had a home cooked meal for us every night on the dinner table, where we ate together as a family. I was always proud of mom's cooking, especially when I was dating my husband. He used to joke that mom's cooking is what brought him over to our house every night.
Like most everything else, cooking is a skill that is long gone with the dementia. It faded slowly. In the beginning, she began cooking less and less and then she seemed to cook only a select variety of meals. In the year leading up to her diagnosis, we would joke everytime Sunday dinner came around,
"What do you guess it will be tonight: tacos or spaghetti?"
We had no idea at the time, of course, why she was stuck on the same meals every week.
Over the last year, her meal varieties have become less and less. She had trouble coming up with ideas, so I made a menu for her with meals she was familiar with and would cook regularly. Eventually, that strategy ceased to work. Within the past few months, mom has, for the most part, quit cooking altogether. Her list of things she will make is very short: sandwiches, tortellini (the frozen kind that you cook in boiling water) with jarred fettucine sauce and frozen mixed vegetables, salad (which has to be the iceberg lettuce mix with tomatoes and cheddar cheese, smothered in ranch dressing), and her broccoli-cauliflower salad. She will warm up left overs for tacos, but dad has had to take the reins on preparing those meals.
For the most part, these meals don't require a stove-with the exception of the tortellini and the broccoli-cauliflower salad. Her broccoli-cauliflower recipe (which came from my Aunt) calls for cooked bacon to be crumbled on top.
A couple months ago, we were all at mom and dad's house as mom was preparing the bacon for her salad. She turned the flame on the stove at the highest setting, flames flipping out from under the pan. She put her slices of bacon in the pan and let it cook. As we observed her preparation of the bacon, we noticed how brown it was becoming and eventually the smell of it burning.
"Mom, you need to turn your bacon over now, it's getting burned," I told her, as I peered over her shoulder.
"No. I know what I'm doing. I'm a good cooker. You don't have to tell me what to do, I know how to do this," she insisted, irritated with my suggestions.
"I cook 4 minutes on this side and then I turn it, 4 minutes on the other side," she continued, glancing at the clock on the stove.
"Mom, if you wait another 4 minutes it's going to be black," I tried again.
"No, you don't tell me what to do. I never would talk like that to my mom. I know how to do it, I'm a good cooker."
She continued burning the bacon, as I stood by, watching. When 4 minutes were up, she flipped the bacon and continued burning it on the other side. When she was finished, she put the bacon on a paper towel to drain the grease and picked up the pan with the remaining grease. With the flame still on the highest setting, mom began pouring the grease into a cup which sat right next to the flame on the stovetop. I quickly turned off the flame and exclaimed to mom that what she was doing was very dangerous. She completely ignored what I said and continued pouring the grease.
The smell of burned bacon consumed the house. Dad opened the doors and windows (despite mom's protests) to air the smell out of the house.
This experience was an eye opener to us all. We knew that mom needed to be supervised in the kitchen; I think we didn't realize the seriousness of that need until this night. I don't want to think about what could happen if she attempts to make bacon while we are not home. Dad has taken extra precaution to make sure that he is there when mom buys her ingredients for the broccoli-cauliflower salad and that it gets made while he is present. It's not an easy task...mom will argue about the way she cooks it and becomes very angry if we try to help (flip the bacon before the 4 minutes is up, turn down the flame, etc), but have to do what is necessary to keep her-and everyone else-safe.