Memoir recalls how author used family recipes to cope with mother’s dementia

Alex Witchel certainly is not the only seasoned journalist to chronicle caring for an aging parent, a hot topic for all those baby boomer writers suddenly experiencing it firsthand. But Witchel may be the first to include recipes.

The New York Times Magazine writer’s new book, “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments,” is a memoir, and Witchel’s fourth book – part family history, part practical advice and part cookbook.

The roux that binds this stew: As Witchel watched horrified, her mother, Barbara, a “life of the mind” college professor, eventually lost the ability to read or remember a conversation to stroke-related dementia. Witchel tried coping in the kitchen.

“Is there any contract tighter than a family recipe?,” Witchel asks in “All Gone.”

She worked her way through what she calls classic “1950s housewife food, kosher division” recipes, like Sweet and Sour Potted Meatballs, that her mother gave her years ago but Witchel never had made.

There was magic in those meals, Witchel was convinced, that could fix even something as terrible as the slow vanishing of self.

“One of the things that made me feel better was to cook my mother’s food. It made my home smell like hers and it was comforting for me to recreate that part of her,” said Witchel, from the home she shares in Manhattan with critic and opinion writer Frank Rich.

But I discovered it had its limitations. One weekend, I cooked my brains out and made a really wonderful meal. But my mother still had dementia.”

Barbara Witchel, diagnosed seven years ago, is 81 and lives at home with professional assistance outside of New York City along with her husband, who now has dementia as well. Witchel, who also lost a sister to brain cancer shortly before “All Gone” was published, talked about writing through the loss and what she discovered.

Q. Dementias, such as Alzheimer’s, probably now are the most feared diseases, even more so than cancer. Why do you think that is?

A. I think most people, given the choice, would say they would like to live forever. But what we really want is to be ourselves as long as we can. That’s the currency of our lives. Dementia robs you of that. You are in your body but you aren’t there.

Q. What personal advice would you give to others caring for a loved one with dementia?

A. I think the most important component of caregiving is kindness and patience, which I personally sometimes have in short supply. It’s important to have help. I almost killed myself, in the beginning, trying to do it all myself.

Q. Is there anything you have changed about how you personally live, given what you have gone through in the past six years?

A. Seeing how all of the rules you have been raised with (about working hard and success) can collapse has made me feel more connected to things that before seemed less important. Like the quality of your relationships. Your leisure time. Getting enough sleep. It’s like thinking you should eat only vegetables and never dessert; what’s the point?

Q. Is there any particular recipe in “All Gone” I should go make tonight?

A. The meatloaf recipe is great, and I stand behind it. My literary agent, when I was first writing the book proposal, asked for recipe examples, then went home and made the meatloaf. He said his children ate it and liked it, so he figured it was good.

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