When Miriam Green’s mother, Naomi Cohen, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 69, Green found herself in the role of caregiving for the parent who once cared for her.
Green admits that no one is fully prepared for facing this disease, which affects around 50 million people worldwide. An award-winning poet who lives in Be’er Sheva, Israel, Green turned to cooking and writing as a coping mechanism, and began recording family recipes.
Those recipes thread through her first book, “The Lost Kitchen: Reflections and Recipes from an Alzheimer’s Caregiver” (Black Opal Books), which delivers an honest, touching account of living with a parent with Alzheimer’s. Green blends poetry, storytelling, humor, and recipes into her chapters as she details her family’s struggle to maintain a “new normal” as her mother’s health deteriorates.
The book initially started as a funny notion around her father’s newly gained cooking prowess.
“The kitchen has always been my mother’s domain, and now my father was cooking for the first time in his life. I used the creation of a book to cope with the sudden changes in our lives,” Green explained. “We were going to call it, ‘The Man’s Emergency Cookbook,’ but I soon realized that this vehicle was not broad or deep enough for me to express everything I needed to say.”
Writing to Cope
As her mother’s world grew smaller, Green’s expanded through her writing. While working on her book, she started a blog, also called The Lost Kitchen, documenting her mother’s health and sharing a recipe with each entry.
“The idea of blogging each week was a way for me to record my mom’s decline, and use my writing as a way to overcome the emotional stress of constantly mourning her,” she explained.
In one blog post titled “A Shrinking World,” Green shares how her mother’s love of music transcends her mental and physical limitations. It “awakens dormant memories,” Green writes, “transporting her from her small surroundings into unbridled joy.”
In the accompanying recipe for pomegranate chicken, Green writes that the pomegranates “serve as a sign of fertility and righteousness and they animate our blessings … If each one of us is like a pomegranate, then so is Mom. I envision her as a husk containing sparks of self-consciousness that allow her to connect with us in our reality, which in turn helps us to continue to bond with her.”
Remembering the Bitter and Sweet
Preserving happy memories of her once vibrant, music-loving mother is important for Green. She does this throughout her book by sharing recipes and anecdotes.
One example is her mother’s chicken soup, an aromatic golden broth with chunks of chicken, potatoes, and carrots, seasoned with dill, parsley, and celery. Green writes, “Perhaps our cooking is like our personality… Mom’s personality was always cheerful and kind, open and generous, much like her chicken soup.”
Desserts figure prominently throughout the book, perhaps a metaphor for sweet childhood memories as well as a nod to her father’s affinity for chocolate. One recipe, for her mother’s “Failure Cake,” is especially poignant for Green.
“I remember with such happiness licking the bowl to a cake that Mom called her ’failure cake,’” she writes. “I was probably too young to realize what might be missing; I assume she forgot an ingredient or doubled one by mistake. But whatever the reason, that cake when it was baked was delicious. We kept asking her to make the same ‘failure cake’ again and again, its flaw becoming a kind of perfection in our eyes.”
For Green, failure cakes are a metaphor for Alzheimer’s, and the realization that she must reframe the inevitable tragedy of losing her mother to the disease, and focus instead on enjoying the present moments spent together.
Green shared that coping with a parent with Alzheimer’s has become a lens through which she views the world. She tries to focus on the moments of joy and laughter over anxiety and despair.
“Over the past few years, [my mom] has taught me so much about compassion for others,” Green said.
“Alzheimer’s has taught me about what it means to live with illness, how crucial it is to embrace kindness, compassion, laughter, and love, not only toward my mom, but toward myself,” she said.
Alzheimer’s will ultimately claim her mother, but Green will forever keep those memories of her, through her recipes and food traditions.
In the United States, Alzheimer’s disease affects more than five million people, and close to 16 million adults are family caregivers to someone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated November as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. In 2012, President Barack Obama proclaimed November National Family Caregivers Month.
Advice From an Alzheimer’s Caregiver
I asked Miriam Green to share a few tips for finding joy in Alzheimer’s.
- Live in the now. Change the way you speak. Alzheimer’s sufferers don’t remember things. It is pointless to ask, “Do you remember…?” It places needless stress on the individual. Instead of, “Do you remember when I spilled my coffee last week?” you can say, “Last week I spilled my coffee.”
- Throw out your anger. Anger is a counter-productive emotion at the best of times. How much more so when you’re dealing with an Alzheimer’s patient. Mom does not act out of malice; she simply cannot help herself. It makes Mom extra tense and irrational when we are angry with her, which in turn prompts her own angry, venomous reactions.
- Shield them as much as possible. Stay away from noisy environments. Keep a watchful eye. Always be where she can find you. Avoid upsetting topics like the death of a loved one (I mean, Mom thinks her father is still alive though he’s been dead for more than 16 years).
- Be their active memory. Play games, sing songs, show them photos of their grandchildren, watch old movies, read poetry. Carry within you the precious moments that make up a lifetime of blessings.
- 6 tablespoons pomegranate syrup
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons tomato puree
- 1 tablespoon date honey
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 whole chickens, cut into eight pieces
- 2 red onions, cut into wedges
- Seeds from one pomegranate
- 1/4 cup almonds, chopped
- 3–4 sprigs parsley, chopped
Combine pomegranate syrup, oil, tomato puree, honey, cinnamon, and salt and pepper and spread over chicken. Marinate chicken overnight or at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place chicken in a large pan. Toss on onions and roast for 40–50 minutes until chicken is browned and juices run clear. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds, almonds, and parsley. Serve.
Green writes, “When I looked through the recipes Mom had sent me when we moved to Israel, there was one marked, ‘The Cake.’ Though my kids gave it mixed reviews, its wine-sweetened batter bursting with nutmeg took me back to my childhood, and still does whenever I make it.”
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 3/4 cup sherry or dry red wine
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 cups flour
- 1 2.8-ounce package instant vanilla pudding
Beat eggs and sugar, then whisk in oil. Add sherry and remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Bake in a greased Bundt pan for 35 minutes at 350 degrees F.
Recipes courtesy of Miriam Green, “The Lost Kitchen: Reflections and Recipes from an Alzheimer’s Caregiver”
Melanie Young writes about wine, food, travel, and health. She co-hosts the weekly national radio show “The Connected Table LIVE!” and hosts “Fearless Fabulous You!” both on iHeart.com. Twitter@connectedtable