Taste and Smell
There’s a Hebrew idiom, “al ta’am v’reyach ein l’hitvake’ach,” which literally translates to, “on taste and smell it is impossible to argue.” Meaning, there is no absolute judgement on personal preferences.
While this is true for the general population, it’s probably 10 times truer for an Alzheimer’s patient, because Alzheimer’s patients lose their ability to taste and smell.
It has been established that loss of smell is one of the initial symptoms in degenerative neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Studies have even shown a connection between lowered sense of smell and the likelihood that a person will develop such diseases later.
Things taste different if we can’t smell them. Try an experiment: pop a flavored candy in your mouth but hold your nose while you start chewing. You probably can’t detect the flavor. Now, before it’s all gone, unplug your nose and see if you can sense its flavor. Chances are you can. Your nasal passages carry the smell of food to you along with the air you breathe. Without that interplay of taste and smell, you wouldn’t be able to comprehend complex flavors. You’d be limited to what the tongue alone can distinguish—salty, sweet, bitter and sour.
On a practical level, because food doesn’t taste good to Mom, Mom, like many Alzheimer’s patients, is interested in foods that have intense flavor, often those that are the least nutritious and the most processed. It is very disconcerting to make a healthy meal for Mom only to hear her say she doesn’t like it because it has no taste.
Taste and smell also carry an emotional connection, one that with their fading memories, Alzheimer’s patients lose. I can still remember the first time I tried sushi. Daddy took me out for my birthday, just the two of us. I must have been about 10 years old. That first powerful bite sent shockwaves through me. I remember thinking, this taste is like no other I have ever had; the world is so much bigger than I imagined.
When he was in the army, my father-in-law bit into what he thought was pound cake only to discover it was dry, flavorless cornbread. That memory is still so strong that he won’t eat cornbread to this day.
If the food itself is unappetizing, there are certain things you can do to make mealtimes more significant.
Eat Together. Make your meal a social event as even Alzheimer’s patients love to interact socially.
Eat nutritious meals. Try not to worry too much about the taste of any one food, but do offer a wide variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Cut the food in small pieces. Even sandwiches can be cut into bite-sized pieces that are easier for an Alzheimer’s patient to handle by hand or with a fork. You might have to remind them how to use a fork.
Extend your mealtime. Alzheimer’s patients often eat very slowly. Allow enough time for them to finish their meal without stress.
Use colorful plates. Red plates make a big impression on someone with Alzheimer’s, especially if they’re eating white rice, chicken, or mashed potatoes.
Give in to their cravings. Do make eating an enjoyable event when you can, especially towards the end of life. There is always room for a small serving of ice cream or other treat.
It’s all about balance and moderation and the acceptance that taste and smell is different for everyone.
If you’re looking for a vegetable with a strong taste, try asparagus. Not only is it loaded with nutrients, asparagus, like leafy greens, delivers folate, which works with vitamin B12—found in fish, poultry, meat and dairy—to help prevent cognitive impairment. Asparagus also contains a unique compound that, when metabolized, gives off a distinctive smell in urine.
1 bunch asparagus, approximately 250 grams
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1½ Tbsp parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut ends of asparagus on a diagonal to remove the woody stalk. Place in a flat-bottomed container. Pour over olive oil, lemon juice and spices and coat well. Remove to baking pan lined with baking paper. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 425°.