One thing no one could ever accuse Mom of being is a picky eater. She always joked that if her food didn’t bite her first, she’d eat it. Until lately. I can’t address the pathology for her, exactly, but her dementia has impacted her eating, and apparently, this is not unusual. Her taste buds could be diminishing, due to her age and years of smoking. Or it could be the way her brain processes information from her taste buds.
The Gustatory Complex & The Hippocampus
The gustatory complex is the part of the brain that allows you to taste your food. The hippocampus is the part of your brain responsible for, among other things, memory. It is where short-term memories are turned into long-term memories.
I’ve long recognized that Mom’s hippocampus is a part of her brain impacted by her disease. She has almost no short-term memory (although once in a while she surprises me, and I am at a loss to understand why some memories stick and other don’t.) But when I went on a search to understand why her food preferences have changed, I came across an interesting discovery.
Yes, I discovered the gustatory complex, where taste is interpreted. But what I didn’t know is that the smell of food passes through the hippocampus and temporal lobe. Or just how linked memory is to food preference.
It makes sense, when I think about it. As a kid, I ate tuna sandwiches with the rest of them. Until my sister told me that tuna was ground up rats, and even pointed out what looked like a tail. To this day I can’t be in the same room with an open can of tuna.
So, Mom’s gustatory complex may be damaged. Or it may be her hippocampus that makes her say her stomach goes flip-flop when she looks at or even thinks of food she used to scarf down like it was her last meal.
These days, Mom can peruse a menu of delectable Italian pasta favorites and nearly gag. The thought of chicken turns her stomach. And much of what I prepare for her now has regressed to what you might feed a child—mac and cheese, hot dogs, baloney sandwiches. Gone are the days of me downloading an interesting recipe from Ina Garten. Keep it simple, stupid is the name of the menu these days.
Her hunger is not impacted at all. She’s hungry all the time, in fact, which has it’s own set of challenges. What she wants are simple flavors—sweet mostly. But spicy still works, too. Chicken may turn her stomach, but Buffalo wings are still a winner, for now. Anything smothered in Ranch dressing is a hit. (And that turns MY stomach!) But dishes with complex flavor profiles, like complex ideas or concepts, just don’t compute very well anymore.
Although she frequently says, “I want something different.”—she really doesn’t. I’ve learned that she says that because she can’t remember anything she has eaten, so she thinks that means she’s bored with what she’s eaten. I don’t get sucked into that trap anymore, trying to find new and never-tried recipes to please her. That’s a recipe for stink-face and a bowl of ice cream for dinner.
A New Normal
One unforeseen consequence of this change in Mom’s food preference is that I often don’t have the gumption to cook like I once did. I like cooking. I like trying new recipes, and expanding my culinary horizons. But throwing away food is something we can’t afford. And having her look at what I spent time, money, and effort on as if it had been dug out of the trash is disenchanting, at best. Dining out is a struggle.
I know she doesn’t mean to hurt my feelings, or challenge my patience. Or that she can even understand that is how it feels for me. I know it’s the disease. And as many before me have said, dementia sucks, and it doesn’t only impact the person who has it.