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Influential Chef Paula Wolfert Powers on Despite Dementia

Dementia has made it harder to read the words on the page, and to remember this afternoon what I did this morning, and even the names of old friends, but I can’t let it stop me from living.

Paula Wolfert is one of the most influential chefs of our time. While she may not be a household name, she authored eight cookbooks and countless articles over her 40-year career, in addition to bringing foods like couscous into our public consciousness.

Today, Paula is battling dementia, but she is not letting it slow her down. In the new book “Unforgettable,” authored by fellow food writer Emily Kaiser Thelin, Paula’s spirit and the legacy of her renegade life are captured in one place.

We honor her this Sunday as our Architect of Change of the Week for her powerful perseverance and how she is still using food to inspire us all. She recently wrote to us to share more about her life now, as well as tips from the book about how you can use food to retrieve memories.

1) You have an incredible drive that persists despite your diagnosis. What motivates you to keep charging ahead and living life to its fullest?

Thank you; I don’t know if I’m so exceptional, I just hate to be bored, don’t you? Having dementia doesn’t all of a sudden turn off your brain. I still love to learn new things and make new discoveries—especially if they’re about ways to help me fight this illness. When Emily told me she wanted to write my biography, I wasn’t going to let dementia stop me from trying to help her. Dementia has made it harder to read the words on the page, and to remember this afternoon what I did this morning, and even the names of old friends, but I can’t let it stop me from living.

2) You’re a big proponent of a brain-healthy diet. What does that consist of for you? Do you have tips for others who may be looking to follow a similar regimen?

A brain-healthy diet can mean different things to different people. I recommend working with a neurologist and trying out a few approaches to learn what works for you. I have become a big believer in the ketogenic diet. I eat very few carbs, and as many healthy fats and proteins and vegetables as I can, and I look and feel better than I have in years. I also practice intermittent fasting, so I have a big meal at lunch, a snack in the late afternoon, and then nothing (except BulletproofTM Coffee) until lunch the next day. It took me a while to build up to this regimen, so I recommend starting gradually and experimenting to find what feels right.

3) How do you believe food can be used to connect with someone who has dementia?

This is something Emily can say more about; when she was writing Unforgettable, she cooked some of my recipes for me to see what memories they brought up. She can tell you if that was successful or not. I think the book turned out beautifully. It’s hard to generalize because dementia comes in so many different forms and affects everyone a little bit differently. Food can be one way to connect, but so can music, so can a walk in the park, so can watching a good TV show on Netflix. People with dementia are just like ordinary people. We all want connection, whether it’s from food or anything else we love. 

4) Has your journey with dementia changed how you see the world?

I think I’ve become a bit more patient and understanding. I hate to admit it, but people used to sometimes find me a little demanding, since my standards can be high. I think I’ve softened. I used to think good food was the only thing, now I know it’s just one thing. 

5) What’s one thing you want people to know about who you are today?

I’m still Paula! I think sometimes people fear I might have already turned into a vegetable, but I’m still here. I still have my sense of humor. They tell me that can sometimes never go away.

6) How do you hope to continue to Move Humanity Forward?

I don’t pretend to think I’m doing anything for humanity. I’m just trying to save myself. But if I can inspire others who are fighting this disease to not hide it, but to come out and fight with me, then I hope I’ve done something good.

READ: Paula’s Tips for Using Food to Retrieve Food Memories

You can learn more about Paula’s incredible life in the new book “Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life.”

Photo Credit: Eric Wolfinger