Finding the right balance between safety and risk is a challenge caregivers of people with dementia continually face, especially when it comes to cooking. It’s important to observe if the person can still cook safely. Those in the early stages of dementia may be able to use the stove independently with reminders and safer cooking products.
On the other hand, if you notice increased forgetfulness, you’ll need to use automatic fire protection strategies and possibly limit access to cooking only when you’re in the kitchen.
In this section, we’ll give you some simple tips on how to maximize cooking safety, including using safer household products and the latest technologies.
For some individuals in the earlier stages of dementia, reminder signs can be very helpful. Use simple language and large-sized text, and place in the direct view of the person.
Depending on the person’s habits, hang the reminder sign where they would most need it. For example, consider a sign that says “TURN STOVE OFF” right near the stove, and one that says “CHECK STOVE IS OFF” on the kitchen or front door.
Many people with dementia also have failing eyesight and can’t see the stove’s controls well enough to use it safely.
One thing you might do is to highlight the on/off controls with bright colors. For example, use a dot of bright red nail polish to mark the OFF location, and blue to mark the location of a medium-sized flame.
Even then, many people turn on the wrong burner and leave the kitchen with the flame under an empty pot. If this is due to low vision or mild forgetfulness, applying labels with large text to identify the front and back burners may help. Yellow flame-retardant electrical tape and a black magic marker pen work really well.
Supervision may still be required, especially in the later stages of the disease.
At some point in the disease, reminder signs will not be effective, so you’ll need to apply other interventions.
One of the biggest problems is forgetting that food is cooking on the stove. In the early stages, some individuals will be able to use a timer successfully. It may be helpful, however, to put up a “Set the Timer” sign or to gently remind the person to do so. A timer with large, easy-to-read numerals and a loud and long ring will be the most effective.
Automatic Stove Turn-Off
Some of these products have a timer, a motion sensor, and an automatic stove turn-off. When the person is in the kitchen, the motion sensor detects his or her presence, and the stove works like any other stove.
When the person leaves the cooking area, the automatic timer turns on and turns the stove off when preset time has elapsed. The stove turns on again when the sensor detects the person’s presence or when the dial is manually turned, depending on the model.
Stove safety products like these can extend the ability to cook for those with dementia who still have good stove skills and judgment. However, it’s important that you assess the person using this product or unsafe cooking can still occur.
The person must know what cookware to use and not, for example, putting plastic containers on the burners. The stove area must be free of excessive grease and other flammable materials, such as newspapers and paper towels.
Also, the person must know that food left on the stovetop for an extended period is not safe to eat.
Low-Temperature Electric Safety Burners
These cast-iron safety plates are 1/3 to 1/2 as hot as regular electric burners, thus reducing the chance of a fire. The maximum burner temperature on these safety plates is 662° F, hot enough to boil water or cook a meal – but not hot enough for oil, food, and household materials like potholders, clothing, or paper to easily catch on fire.
In addition to forgetting food cooking on the stove, people with dementia have unpredictable behavior and may engage in fire-risky behaviors, such as turning on unused burners or placing papers on the stove. A newspaper placed on a regular burner would go up in flames, but would not on a safety burner.
Safety burners attach on top of the existing coil burners of an electric stove and must be installed by trained personnel. Stove safety products like the one illustrated here can extend the ability to cook for people with dementia. However, it is important to assess the person’s safety while using this product, or unsafe cooking behavior can still occur.
Automatic Fire Extinguishers
Standard fire extinguishers can be difficult for anyone to use, but especially for persons with memory loss. Fire extinguishers are available that dispense automatically and put out a fire. This product – a fire extinguisher in two small cans – magnetically attaches under the vent hood.
When a stovetop fire occurs and the flames reach the cans, the fire-suppressing powder is automatically released onto the fire with a loud POP. The active ingredient, bicarbonate of soda, is harmless to humans but extremely effective in putting out fires. Cleanup is managed with sponges or a wet towel.
Though this device is designed to include small grease fires, it is not suitable for use with deep fat frying. In addition, this fire safety product does NOT turn off the stove and may be best used with a caregiver present. To use this extinguisher safely, a person needs to be able to follow instructions, as the fire may reignite if the stove is not shut off.
Leaving a tea kettle on a hot burner can damage the kettle and possibly cause a fire. But a tea kettle with a loud whistle can prompt a person’s memory that water is boiling on the stove before the kettle boils dry. Just make sure the whistle on the tea kettle is still working and is loud enough so it can be heard from another room. Do realize, however, that persons used to using a saucepan to boil water may not be able to learn how to use a kettle.
Check regularly to see whether the person can use a tea kettle safely. At some point, the person may be unable to:
- Safely use the stovetop
- Remember the purpose of the whistle and respond appropriately
- Safely carry and pour a pot of boiling water
Many caregivers ask whether using electric kettles is safer than using stove-top kettles to boil water. Since these electric models work very differently than regular tea kettles, not all people with dementia will be able to use them. Some caregivers do report success when these electric kettles are introduced to those in the early stages, or when they are used in a cooking area separate from the kitchen.
If you decide to try an electric kettle, you will need to continually monitor safe usage to reduce the chances of the person reverting back to old habits and putting the electric tea kettle on a lit stove – one of the main safety issues.
When shopping for an electric tea kettle, look for 2 key features:
The first is an automatic turn-off feature that turns the kettle off when the water boils. Some models only have a “boil-dry” thermostat that cycles on and off every few seconds when the kettle is dry, but does not turn the kettle off – this type of kettle is not recommended for someone with dementia.
The second feature to look for is an on/off switch. Some kettles only turn on and off when the user plugs and unplugs the kettle, which could confuse someone with dementia and be a potential fire risk. You can read our review of best tea kettles on the market here.
Cookware/Pots, Pans & Potholders
Many older adults have worn and outdated cookware that needs to be replaced. Uneven or wobbly bottoms increase the likelihood that a pot will tip over. Moreover, if a pan has been burned, rivets could loosen or the nonstick coatings could crack or flake.
Check your care receiver’s cookware and replace it when necessary. Look for easy-to-carry cookware and pans that do not easily warp or melt; avoid thin aluminum pans. You’ll also want non-breakable lids and stay-cool handles. It’s important to observe your care receiver’s cooking skills and make sure that he or she is still using the cookware safely – including remembering to use potholders when necessary.
Thin, aging skin burns easily and needs extra protection. Worn-out hot pads or thin decorative pads do not provide good burn protection, as the heat easily travels from the pan to the hand. Potholders that aren’t flame resistant can be set on fire easily if laid on a hot burner, as can dishtowels – common substitutes for potholders.
The safest bet is to replace old potholders with flame-resistant ones. This means that they have either been treated with a non-toxic chemical such as Flame Guard, or that they are made of an inherently fire-resistant material, such as silicone. They can still catch on fire; but it takes longer, which gives you a little more time to take action. Better potholders have special steam and grease barriers and other safety features. Brightly colored potholders are easier to find when they’re needed, even in a cluttered kitchen. Some potholders have sewn-in magnets so they can be hung on an appliance door.
And make sure there are fire-resistant countertop hot pads or trivets on which to safely place hot pots. You can read our review of best pot and pan sets here.