Two days before Christmas in 2017, I received a call from the hospital in England, calling me to come as soon as possible. My 91-year-old stepmum, Vera, had had a massive stroke and was not expected to survive for long. Could I come to say my goodbyes?
I threw a few things in a case, quickly wrapped up the presents for my kids and said my goodbyes, promising a second Christmas when I got back.
It was a shock to see Vera. Previously full of life and effervescence, she was now bedridden, could barely move or speak and was on a diet of only puréed foods. At least, I felt she recognised me and seemed comforted to have me there.
As soon as I could, I started bringing her in some of my favourite vegan smoothies, full of nutritious and tasty ingredients and she loved them. It may have been a coincidence, but her health stabilised and, when I asked if she could come home, the hospital agreed.
She was nearing the end of her life, and I knew that her dearest wish was to pass away at home. As a result, I chose to stay in the UK for a while longer so that I could bring her home from hospital to die in peace.
Eating did seem to be one thing from which Vera still got some pleasure. She had always loved cooking and eating, though in the last few years had lost masses of weight and was a frail little lady. This was a unique opportunity to show my love for her by creating imaginative and delicious puréed foods. Food has so much potential to heal, nurture and bring joy to people who are elderly, sick or dying, and I know that this made a difference to Vera’s life at that time.
This led me to think about nutrition for the elderly and sick in general, and in particularl for vegans and vegetarians. In the future, there will be many more people following plant-based diets as they grow older, for all sorts of reasons. Some may be vegetarian or vegan, some may have religious dietary restrictions, others may be on a plant-based diet as medical treatment, for example for diabetes, heart disease or cancer. At the moment, our institutions are ill-equipped to deal with this demand. Conventional medicine hardly even acknowledges food as a possible healing modality, and adequate plant-based options are a rarity.
Vera was not a vegan, but she had always loved the vegan food I made for her (especially the sweets!) I knew her likes and dislikes, so I created her favourite foods and puréed them. I had ample opportunity to research nutrition for the elderly, and to practice. Although Vera could not speak, she made her preferences clear when I was trying to feed her, closing her mouth and turning away if she did not like it. So, over the two months that I cared for her, creating every meal for her, I learned quite a lot. Whether you are catering for a vegetarian, vegan or omnivore, many of the considerations for feeding an older or unwell person still apply. Maybe some of you are caring for aged relatives and are offering them your love by creating delicious meals for them too? Here are some of my tips. I hope you’ll find them useful:
- A good blender is essential! I arrived in the UK without any of my usual equipment, so I went out and bought a NutriBullet, which I used 2-3 times a day, and was absolutely brilliant. This is a relatively inexpensive way of preparing silky smooth puréed foods and smoothies.
- First and foremost, give your loved one what they like. You’ll know what their favourites are, but also don’t be afraid to experiment at this stage. Elderly people lose their taste, and can often eat stronger, spicier, more heavily flavoured foods now. One of Vera’s favourites in recent years, for example, had been my vegan Thai curry, even though she previously always hated chilli and coriander.
- The elderly also do not produce as many digestive enzymes so raw foods are particularly good to add to the diet, containing living enzymes to assist the digestion. When you are puréeing foods, it is easy to give raw foods to people, I made green smoothies, superfood protein shakes, even puréed raw salads with dressing. All of these were very well received by Vera, she seemed to love the raw things the best, even though she never ate a green smoothie in her life before! It was almost as if her body was saying ‘Yes! This is what we need!’
- Pay attention to appetite – don’t assume they will only want tiny portions but also never force food. If you are worried about intake, increase nutrient value by using nut milks, ground seeds, coconut oil, and other high calorie foods, rather than increasing quantity.
- Feed your loved one the same food as the rest of the family if possible, just mashed or blended as required, and serve in beautiful crockery and with nice napkins. This has an energetic value – even if they aren’t aware of it, you are, and that brings a sense of respect and occasion, which you pass on to your relative.
- Much of their happiness comes from eating now, plus the medicinal value of whatever you are giving them. Keep foods similar to what they had before, but add in superfoods/powders/nutrients/vitamins and minerals to increase the healing properties.
- Extra fats are good, so add cold-pressed oils to food for more calories – coconut, olive, hempseed, flax, sesame oils. You can also add more good fats and lots of nutrients with nuts and seeds blended into foods (soak nuts and seeds overnight first for best digestion).
- Vera loved a sweet taste and while you would not necessarily feed your family too many sweet treats, at this stage for Vera it was fine. It encouraged her to eat and added valuable extra calories. I did try to focus on natural sweeteners which offer some nutrients too – dates, dried fruits, honey, maple syrup, coconut nectar, agave nectar and rice syrup.
- Don’t knock yourself out to make absolutely everything home-made – you need a break too. Soft custards, mousses and yogurts are extremely useful and go down well.
- Look after yourself! This is vital. If you don’t feed yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually you will be absolutely no use at all to your loved one. Accept help whenever it is offered. This was a good lesson for me, and one I did finally take on board!
Here are some of the foods Vera enjoyed. You and the rest of the family can enjoy the same foods, just chop, blend or purée as needed for your loved one.
- greek yogurt puréed with banana and drizzled with honey
- mango purée with natural yogurt and coconut nectar
- pear, sultana, cinnamon and hazelnut porridge, drizzled with maple syrup
- bircher muesli, soaked in apple juice overnight with goji berries, wild blueberries, sunflower seeds and almonds, blended and served with greek yogurt and honey
- chocolate mousse
- apple and berry pie blended, served with custard
- chia pudding made with coconut or other non-dairy milk, and pumpkin seeds, blended with dates, honey, vanilla
- stewed prunes, apricots, figs, with custard or yogurt
- ‘nice cream’ made with frozen bananas, macadamias or cashews and vanilla, drizzled with maple syrup
- sweet potato, carrot and pea khicharee, blended with fresh coriander and topped with coconut oil, natural yogurt and lemon juice
- cannelini bean, roast vegetable and tomato soup, blended with fresh basil and cooked quinoa, served with coconut oil or olive oil
- leek and potato soup, blended with fresh parsley and soy milk, served with vegan parmesan
- nut roast, blended with fresh parsley, steamed potato and cauliflower and served with blended mushroom and onion gravy
- Thai curry, made with full fat coconut milk, mixed vegetables and tofu, and blended with fresh coriander and steamed rice, topped with yogurt
- pasta blended with cheesy sauce, ground seeds, fresh tomato and basil
- potato, onion and vegan cheese patties, fried in coconut oil, then blended, served with a salad of any raw vegetables, finely chopped or blended with olive oil, a little apple cider vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper
Drinks/light meals/side dishes:
- fruit smoothie eg banana, mango, pineapple, black grape, hemp seeds, vitamins
- chocolate smoothie: almond milk, cacao, maca, banana, chia, dates, vanilla, salt
- Bananamania: cashew milk, almond butter, hemp seeds, maca, bananas, dates, vanilla, salt, maple syrup
- Green Devil: baby spinach, kale, celery, cucumber, ginger, lemon, avocado, coconut water
- Big Purple: beet, carrot, capsicum, celery, tomato, cucumber, lemon, ginger, garlic, baby spinach, water, olive oil, salt and pepper
- Avo Zpacho: avocado, tomato, cucumber, garlic, lemon, olive oil, fresh parsley or coriander
- After Eight Melt (Vera loved her After Eight mints!): 1/2 cup almond or soy milk, warmed and stir in 2 after eight mints, chopped, until melted and creamy
- apple juice with added vitamin c powder
- lemon, ginger, turmeric and honey tea
- and a little relaxing cocktail for the weekend… amaretto sour (dash amaretto and a squeeze of fresh lime) – good for relaxing, soothing coughs and immune boosting – and why not?