A few years ago at a party, Denise Coley, a San Francisco Bay area food lover, noticed that the bottles of wine she was handling didn’t feel firm in her grasp. She dropped one, shattering it. “Of course, it was a bottle of red,” she says about the mess.
It was more than wine stains that bothered her, though. This wasn’t the first time something seemed off. She’d noticed rigidity on one side of her body and shrinking handwriting. Coley’s kids had made comments about her shaking. As her symptoms piled up, her doctor sent her to a neurologist, who diagnosed Coley with Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease whose best-known symptom is hand tremors, but it can cause other symptoms, including limb rigidity, balance, and motor (movement) problems. Non-motor symptoms include depression, constipation, and cognitive issues. The Parkinson’s Foundation estimates that 930,000 Americans were living with the disease in 2020. It’s most commonly diagnosed in people older than 50, but onset can occur at any age.
The diagnosis can be scary, but those living with Parkinson’s can usually continue to do the things they’ve long enjoyed. Coley has always loved entertaining, cooking, and especially baking for her whole family. By tweaking her kitchen layout, her tools, and even her mindset, she’s kept at it in the years since her diagnosis. Turns out, Parkinson’s experts think that’s a very good idea. Cooking is a complex task that helps keep your thinking sharp and your body moving. And when you’re dealing with a health challenge, homemade food can help you feel your best.
The heart of your home
A diagnosis of Parkinson’s doesn’t mean you need to redesign your entire kitchen, but a few changes can help make it a lot more accessible. If you have space, a kitchen table provides a potentially more comfortable food prep space than taller countertops. “Sometimes a simple change from standing to sitting, so you have more arm support, makes all the difference,” says Julia Wood, an occupational therapist specializing in Parkinson’s at the University of Pennsylvania.
She also recommends reorganizing so things are more reachable: “Move the most frequently used items between shoulder and knee level,” Wood says. Lesser-used items can be stashed up high or down low. If your care team has given you the all clear to climb stools, get a sturdy one with a handle. Coley rearranged the storage space in her own kitchen and has found it’s made a big difference.
“If you do need to replace an appliance, it’s a great strategy to look to buy something that increases your accessibility,” Wood says. Consider your current and potential future symptoms. Some people feel unsteady reaching up to a front-opening wall oven, especially if they are also holding a casserole dish. A side-opening oven or one with French doors may be more comfortable.
Make sure you have plenty of bright light to read recipes and check measurements. “The movement of the eyes is affected with Parkinson’s too, and sometimes colors and contrasts aren’t as sharp,” Wood says. You’ll also want to look for any tripping hazards in the kitchen, dining room, and beyond—including bunched rug edges, pet toys, electrical cords, and clutter—and remove them.
Your culinary tool kit
Cooking tools and tableware matter too. Coley found that delicate stemmed wine glasses no longer worked for her. “I replaced them with heavier-duty stemless. I don’t break these as I put them in the dishwasher,” she says. “We use a lot more plastic bowls and drinking vessels these days,” Coley says. Wood recommends minimizing glass to her Parkinson’s patients as well. “There’s so much great shatterproof melamine now,” she says.
Gradually, Coley has updated kitchen tools. She now uses an electric can opener and a handy jar opener. To whisk eggs, she’s switched from a balloon whisk to a hand-cranked egg beater that’s easier to manage—for now. “I know I may need to switch again to a handheld electric mixer if turning the crank gets hard or the stand mixer becomes too heavy,” she says.
Because grasping things can be difficult, Wood suggests using tools with big, soft handles. “I like Oxo,” she says. If you love your current kitchen gizmos, adding tube grips or layering the handles with Dycem nonslip tape can make them easier to work with.
Difficulty gripping items might make a person with Parkinson’s justifiably nervous about using a chef’s knife. All cooks have cut themselves in a moment of lapsed attention. But with Parkinson’s, you might use your food processor more often, depending on your symptoms at a given moment. Though she can still work with a knife, Coley uses a food processor at times. “Some people use a cut-resistant glove or a slap-chop type device,” Wood says.
You might think you’ll need to trade your beloved cast iron for lighter-weight cookware, but according to Wood, that may not be necessary. “It’s not that people aren’t strong. It’s that their muscles don’t work automatically anymore. When I work with people, I need to remind them to consciously use their larger muscles to lift things.” A helper handle can make even heavy pots easier to maneuver.
Eating with Parkinson’s
Should someone who’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s rethink what’s inside their refrigerator as well? “There’s no one specific recommended diet, but what you eat can affect your symptoms and medications,” according to Rachel Dolhun, M.D., senior vice president of medical communications and movement disorder specialist with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and author of Parkinson’s Disease and Diet: A Practical Guide.
For example, Levodopa is the most commonly prescribed Parkinson’s medicine, and protein-rich meals can interfere with its absorption. “If you’re noticing it takes longer to kick in, or you’re not noticing the benefits as much, you want to separate medications from mealtimes,” Dolhun says.
The overall diet Dolhun suggests will be familiar to anyone who has talked to a health care provider about what to eat. “It’s basically the Mediterranean diet,” she says—lots of vegetables and beans, fewer meats and saturated fat, easy on the sugar.
One special dietary consideration for Parkinson’s is fiber. Constipation is very common among people living with Parkinson’s, and they might experience it for decades before they get a diagnosis. As you add fiber-rich foods like oatmeal, Dolhun says it’s important to drink more water too. “Fiber and water work together,” she says.
A new way of thinking
The most important adjustments you can make when you’re living with Parkinson’s disease may be to your mindset. For many people, asking for help is uncomfortable, but a little help can make the difference between cooking and not cooking. Coley has come to rely on family members for help when she’s undertaking her more ambitious culinary projects and moving heavy stuff around.
An occupational therapist can help you adapt to your symptoms, so you can do what you used to do but in a different way. “I teach people how to sidestep when turning becomes a problem. We go over the ‘power stance,’ which is standing with your feet staggered for better stability. We can train people to make third points of contact, adding a hand to a countertop to support you in addition to your feet. Then you can really reach up,” Wood says.
Parkinson’s can also affect cognition, even in the early stages, in subtle ways that show themselves in the kitchen. Wood had a patient whose cakes were suddenly coming out flat—and it turned out she was omitting the leavening. The patient found that setting out all the ingredients first helped. Wood also taught her to photocopy the recipe and cross each ingredient off as she went. Soon her cakes were perfect again.
Before she plans a holiday menu, Coley now considers her symptoms. “In the past, I would cook nonstop for three days. It was a production. Now I trim the menu to what I know I’ll be able to do.” That means one type of greens instead of two and just one homemade dessert. Because baking is a passion, she still makes her own yeast rolls. “That’s a high priority,” Coley says.
Also, consider how symptoms and medication ebb and flow throughout the day. If you’re tired by afternoon because your medication is waning, cook in the morning. “I do a lot in the slow cooker and Instant Pot now,” Coley says. This method allows her to cook once and have dinner for a few days.
It can be a challenge to cook through Parkinson’s symptoms, but adapting to the diagnosis is worthwhile. “If you enjoy food or cooking, you should still let that be part of your life. It’s a great way to engage and connect with others, which is so important with Parkinson’s,” Dolhun says.
Wood agrees. “Cooking is multifaceted. It’s cognitive, it involves motor skills. If you stop doing it, the significant therapeutic benefit is lost,” she says.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious