Culinary creativity keeps sick seniors from eating

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Today’s lunch menu includes beef stew, mashed potatoes and gravy, with green beans on the side, a watermelon amuse bouche and a peanut butter cookie for dessert.

Chef Adrian Arias therefore takes cooked green beans, puts them in a food processor and purees them, adding vegetable broth to enhance the flavor, a little body starch and several drops of green food coloring. Mashing with broth tarnishes the color of the beans, so the green dye picks it up. Then the mash passes through a piping bag and is routed into a stack of facsimile green beans.

By now you might be wondering what a weird new haute cuisine this could be. The answer is, we don’t visit any Lincoln Park three-star scientific food hotspot, but the immaculate kitchen of the Northbrook Inn Memory Care community.

Which brings us to the bad news.

Most of you know that Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia rob a person of the ability to remember. The body endures, almost mockingly, while the personality recedes. It can be confusing and terrifying for those affected and heartbreaking for those close to them.

As bad as it is, memory is only the first in a series of losses. Dementia is hell on many levels. For example.

Chef Adrian Arias adds gravy to a plate of mash that has been shaped into its original shape to make it more appealing to residents who have difficulty swallowing due to dementia at Northbrook Inn Memory Care Community. His colleague chef Keyva Linton watches.
Photo by Neil Steinberg

“They don’t chew anymore. They start to suffer from dysphagia, which means they can’t swallow, ”said Jen Pasternak, general manager of the Northbrook Inn. “They don’t have the reflex to get their brains to tell the food to go down.”

When such a person finds a chicken fork brought to their mouth, they may not know what to do with it.

“A lot of people with dysphagia would take that piece of chicken and swallow it whole,” Pasternak said. “They can pocket food; they just keep food in their cheek, like a chipmunk.

One solution is to mash food.

“The purees help them not to choke,” she said.

But purees are not appetizing.

Arias, chef at Maple Glen Memory Care in Glenview (he and the Northbrook Inn are two of 41 facilities in eight states run by Koelsch Communities) tried to form mash after noticing some residents with advanced Alzheimer’s disease returned 80% of their meals, intact. He suspected that maybe it was because the food they were given looked like glop.

“This is the biggest generation, and I think we owe it to them to feed them so that they can eat with dignity,” Pasternak said. “I don’t think we should give them a brown ball, a white ball and a green ball. There is simply no dignity in it.

Arias turns meals into a simulation of the food it was before entering the processor, much like pastry chefs concoct frosting flowers. He can assemble the pieces of a Philly cheese stake into a soft facsimile of the original.

“We can also make pizza,” Arias said.

There are foods that resist the process.

“Bacon,” said Keyva S. Linton, culinary director of the Northbrook Inn. ” It is too hard. We do not mash fresh fruits and vegetables. We always cook them down.

I watched her dip a peanut butter cookie in milk, then gently dab the excess milk off a plate of coral, the kind of plating done in good restaurants.

Such attention to detail doesn’t come cheap. A place at the Northbrook Inn starts at $ 6,800 per month and can go up to double, depending on room size and level of care.

The problem with dysphagia is not huge: only two of the 60 residents of Northbrook Inn are served mash. But as our population ages, end-of-life care issues will become more urgent, and given how we’ve botched even the most basic medical issues – wearing a cotton mask, getting a free vaccine. – it is certain that these complicated problems will continue to annoy us. .

In the meantime, taking this extra step is very satisfying.

“To help people who can’t help themselves,” Linton said. “It’s very rewarding at the end of the day. The rewards I get from them telling myself, “I love you. Although they are not always there, these words mean a lot. They appreciate it.

“Food contains memories,” Pasternak said. “We remember the things we ate when we were kids. It brings happiness.


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