She’s one of the UK’s most trusted dieticians and cordon bleu chefs and now she’s on a mission to transform the way we think about food on the dementia journey. Here, Jane Clarke tells Unforgettable why she’s determined to help people with dementia enjoy their food again
The family sounded desperate. Their mum had dementia and was losing so much weight she seemed to be fading away before their eyes. ‘They’d written to me because they were at their wits end,’ Jane Clarke recalls.
It’s a scenario that many family carers will relate to because eating problems, including loss of appetite and swallowing difficulties, are all too common on the dementia journey. But for Jane, a nutritionist, dietician and best-selling author with a huge amount of experience and knowledge, it was a challenge she was keen to accept.
‘The lady in question had swallowing difficulties. I didn’t want to get stuck in the trap of suggesting her family offer sorbets and ice cream, which provide calories and nutrients but are very sugary. Instead, I suggested focusing on proteins and introducing savoury tastes back into her diet. For example, I taught them how to make a savoury custard with a lovely salty, smoky flavour. Simply building their confidence up about the kinds of food they could make and offer their mum had a huge impact, not only on her health (she gained weight and began to thrive) but on the whole family; they felt empowered, knowing they were doing their best.’
Ten years later Jane has learnt a great deal about dementia. She runs a special dementia nutrition practice, supporting a great many other families living with dementia who’ve been referred from GPs, consultants, carers and relatives to overcome the challenges and fall in love with food again. She also, sadly, has personal experience too. ‘My dad was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (Pick’s disease) which was devastating for our family and makes the work I do in this area feel very personal.’
One of the main challenges Jane has come up against is loss of appetite. ‘This can happen for many different reasons, the person may be lacking the right nutrients or have an iron deficiency for instance which is very common. We shouldn’t simply assume that appetite loss, low mood or low energy are a result of their dementia, we need to be able to see beyond the diagnosis itself.’
Swallowing difficulties are also a key problem and Jane is keen to challenge the practice of mashing up or liquidising meals as a solution. ‘Bunging the main meal, like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in the liquidiser is something dietitians are often taught to do at university, and many people still do because that’s what they’ve been advised. But honestly, I think it’s really degrading, so is advising someone to try baby food. No adult wants to eat baby food, it just seems very wrong to me.’
Instead, Jane is calling for a totally new and radical approach, one which puts pleasure as well as nourishment back on the menu. ‘Losing your appetite is like losing a big part of life, it’s really sad,’ she says. ‘Then you get into this horrible vicious cycle; the less you eat, the less you want to eat. We want to offer different, exciting ways to enjoy eating.’
With this in mind, Jane is launching Nourish, a ground-breaking campaign, website platform and online community, which she hopes will do for dementia what Jamie Oliver did for school meals.
‘I worked with Jamie on the school meals campaign and it resulted in a real change in society, brought about by people power. Now I want to bring about the same kind of change for people living with dementia and their families because the right food can be wonderfully supportive when you have dementia.’
The idea behind Nourish is to bring inspiration and comfort through food, as well as giving advice, tips and recipes (all free) on eating well when you have specific health and food difficulties.
Jane’s vision is to create a supportive community which helps each other get through eating challenges by sharing stories and recipes. ‘We first taste food with our eyes,’ she says. ‘It’s far more than fuel for the body. It’s about love, passion, and creativity as well as nourishment. I want people to think about food in a loving, giving way that restores their spirits as well as their health.’
Jane is launching Nourish with a special Nourish Afternoon Tea. This will be a special event to show that you can still enjoy food and eat well even when you have dementia. She wants to restore a sense of occasion to teatime for everyone.
The tea will be held at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London (home of the famous Chelsea Pensioners). It will be launched with the help of restaurateur and cookery writer Prue Leith, MBE. It will showcase delicious recipes from Jane which will bring joy back to a classic British tradition.
After the event, Jane and her team will be providing a toolkit to help carers and those with dementia put on their own Nourish Afternoon Tea, wherever they are in the country.
No appetite? Try these tips from Jane
Shake things up
If mealtimes have become a battle zone, give in gracefully and try something different. Be creative about where you eat. Does it really have to be at a table? Could your loved one eat in their favourite armchair whilst watching a favourite film? And be creative about when you eat. Does it have to be a main meal at 6pm? Try experimenting with the mealtime routine.
Tease their taste buds
Offer tiny portions (this saves on waste too which can be soul destroying). If they have a sweet tooth, tempt them with small portions of poached pears or stewed apples which can be very soothing for the gut.
Try something new
Don’t be afraid to offer foods they didn’t used to like. ‘I had one client who developed a taste for spicy food when he had dementia,’ says Jane. ‘His family was surprised because he’d never shown any interest in spices before.’
Honour the past
Talk about happy food-related memories. The time you ate fish and chips on the beach, the delicious drop scones they used to bake. Create a mood board of food pictures or photos of you enjoyed eating together. Seeing the pictures can help to stimulate appetite.
Keep it simple
Good food doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Family carers have enough to do without also trying to make complicated gourmet meals. A delicious nourishing meal could be as simple as an egg sandwich or a bowl of vegetable soup.
Recipe for Pea Soup
Preparation time: about 15 minutes
Cooking Time: about 25 minutes
splash of olive oil
1 small leek, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
1 small potato, peeled and chopped
1 litre vegetable stock (organic vegetable bouillon is best)
large handful of washed spinach
250g frozen peas
For the croutons:
wholemeal, rye or all-in-one bread, torn into small chunks
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon ground seed mix
splash of olive or nut oil
1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/Gas Mark 4.
2. Set a medium-sized pan over a good heat and add your oil, leek, carrot and celery and gently fry until soft.
3. Add the potato and stock and simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Finally, add the spinach and peas and simmer until the peas are cooked but still bright green (approx. 5 minutes).
5. While you are waiting for the soup to cook through, put all the crouton ingredients in a bowl and mix together.
6. Tip everything onto a baking tray and place in the oven for 10 minutes until golden and crispy.
7. When the soup is ready, blitz until smooth and then serve with the croutons floating on top.
– If you fancy, you could add a sprinkle of ground seeds when you serve the soup.
– For non-vegetarians, it’s also delicious to add shredded ham at the end.