Keep a loved one with dementia safe in the kitchen
Here’s all the basic information you need to know about keeping your loved one safe and happy in their kitchen
It’s the heart of the home, a room they’ve spent a lifetime navigating easily, and a room which is filled with hazards… But whilst someone living with dementia might not be able to rustle up a three course meal for six any more, they can still enjoy doing every day activities for themselves, providing you’ve taken a few simple precautions. Here’s how to make their kitchen safer, without having to padlock the door.
Your biggest fears in the kitchen…and how to fight them
Fear: Fires and floods
Why: They might leave on an oven, tap or appliance
This is a very understandable worry. People with dementia may forget to turn off gas hobs, electric ovens or taps. Sometimes they won’t turn them off because they have forgotten how to use the switches and knobs.
– Install an electric cooker guard, which can be set with a specific time that the device can be left on for. If the appliance is left on longer than this, or if the temperature goes higher than it should, an alarm will sound.
– It may be possible to fit an isolation valve to a gas cooker which can be switched off if the gas is on for too long.
– Make sure they also have a working smoke detector (and that you check the batteries regularly) and a carbon monoxide detector.
– If you’re worried about them leaving taps running, or being able to turn the taps on or off, there are a number of items that can help. Try using a special plug that will release water from a basin if it gets too full as by detecting the pressure of the water. If taps are stiff or fiddly, you can fix special tap turners which are colour coded red and blue so it’s obvious which is hot or cold, and provide a long handle for plenty of leverage.
– Most kettles are fitted with an automatic switch-off to ensure they don’t boil dry. If the person with dementia doesn’t have one of these, you may have to buy a new kettle. Thankfully, many electric kettles are styled to have a ‘vintage’ look, so hopefully won’t be too much of a change for them.
Why: They might trip while carrying hot food or drinks
Kitchens tend to be small rooms which are packed with equipment and cupboards. So if the person you’re caring for needs help getting around – with a walking stick, frame or wheelchair – it’s easy to see how accidents can happen, especially if they’re trying to carry something or have to reach into low or high cupboards.
– Special tray trolleys will provide the same support as a walker, but with a surface to rest plates or cups so they don’t spill food as they move around or out of the kitchen.
– Sturdy kitchen steps can make reaching high cupboards easier, while low cupboards can be adapted so that items slide out on a separate runner base.
– Consider removing kitchen rugs or mats, especially if they’re a bit worn.
Fear: Food poisoning
Why: They’ll ignore use by dates and eat food that’s gone off
It’s easy to forget about food in the fridge at the best of times. But when someone has dementia it’s even easier, especially since their appetite can fluctuate quite dramatically. A cream cake bought a week ago might have a tiny ‘use by date’ on the packaging so it’s hardly surprising they may not see it, or ignore it when they fancy something sweet… The same applies to other perishable food that’s been put in the fridge.
Schedule in regular fridge ‘clear outs’ which will let you remove any out of date food before it gets eaten. If the person with dementia has bought the same item multiple times (often because they forgot they bought it the last time), put it in the freezer if it’s suitable and then it can be taken out when they need it.
TIP: If you need to dispose of anything, take it to an outside bin and don’t draw attention to what you’re doing. The person you’re caring for might get very upset if they see you ‘wasting’ food from their fridge.
Top challenges in the kitchen – and how to solve them
Kitchens can present other difficulties too, here’s how to beat them.
Challenge: Forgetting where to store things
Kitchens are complicated places. Imagine going into a stranger’s kitchen and trying to put dishes away. Finding the right cupboard would be really difficult, right? So it’s easy to see why people with dementia may get confused about where everything belong, or start putting them in the wrong place. Putting pots and pans in a food cupboard, or a pint of milk in the microwave, might not pose a major health risk, but it can be disruptive, and make life increasingly difficult for anyone else who might be sharing the home.
Use labels or signage on cupboards so that it’s clear where everything belongs. If it’s possible, put everyday items in open-fronted cupboards or on shelves that are very easy to see.
Group similar items together – for example, keep mugs, teaspoons, tea and coffee in one area of the kitchen so that making a hot drink can be relatively stress free. Also think about using see-through storage jars so that they don’t have to open lots of lids to find out what’s inside each one.
Cleaning products should be kept in cupboards that are preferably out of sight, or even locked, to reduce the risk of accidents.
Challenge: Forgetting how to use it
Complicated kitchen gadgets can become tricky to operate if you’re living with dementia. Microwaves are often one of the biggest culprits, but coffee machines and blenders may also prove troublesome.
It can be very upsetting for someone who used to love baking cakes, for example, to suddenly realise they can’t operate a food processor, so it might be kinder to remove or store items like this. Suggest baking cakes together instead. Better still, ask them to teach you how it’s done – they’re likely to remember the important bits and you can operate the gadgets and oven. Microwaves can be useful as they’re usually set on a timer so won’t stay on for a long length of time (we recommend the microwaves that can’t be set for longer than 20 minutes or so). However, if the person is struggling to remember how to use a microwave, type out clear instructions and put them near the device, (preferably stuck to wall or cupboard so they can’t be moved) emphasising important safety aspects such as not putting any metal items or foil into the microwave.
Challenge: Not being strong enough to lift or open things
If the person you’re caring for struggles to open jars and tins, lift kettles or saucepans or use knives and scissors, the kitchen can be especially difficult. Losing strength and the ability to grip or twist things, is a common issue for many elderly people, not just those with dementia.
There’s already a wide range of gadgets that can help someone with strength and dexterity problems to navigate their kitchen. For example, if you’re worried about them lifting a kettle full of boiling water, you can get a kettle tipper, which cradles the kettle and then allows them to pour water out without having to lift it.
Jar and bottle openers are useful for stiff containers that are difficult to unscrew, particularly if grip is weakened.