New Zealand cooking legend Dame Alison Holst recently moved into care some five years after being diagnosed with dementia.

It was not an easy decision for the family, says Simon Holst, the other half of this celebrated mother-son cooking duo, who spoke about Dame Alison’s descent into dementia at the New Zealand Aged Care Association Conference in Wellington on 22-24 October.

One thing he is very clear about is that New Zealanders need to talk more about dementia, a condition that touches the lives of many, many New Zealanders.

“There is still a social stigma associated with mental illnesses and particularly dementia. I am not sure why. Perhaps it’s because it is hard to watch and it’s hard to know how to react,” says Simon, who co-authored over 40 cookbooks with Dame Alison, and nine of his own.

“There are personal and societal aspects to it. For me, talking about Mum’s journey has really helped and in doing so I have been gobsmacked by how many who have come forward and told me they too have a parent with dementia. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved.”

At a societal level Simon’s also clear that dementia and dementia care is something New Zealand must grapple with given our rapidly ageing population living longer and with the incidence of dementia on the rise.

“When we were looking at different dementia care facilities for Mum, all of them had waiting lists. So, we need to think about that as a country and to also think about different models of care. There’s no one size fits all solution because dementia is about people. They’re not the people they were, but they’re still people.”

Dame Alison was 77 when diagnosed, but the symptoms, including anxiety and forgetfulness, had been there for some time. By then, this prolific author who pioneered television cookery in New Zealand and had a half-century legacy on the screen and bookshelves, was no longer able to cook.

The family let the public know in 2015 and received an outpouring of support from New Zealanders and chefs alike.

Simon says seeing his mother and mentor no longer in the kitchen was upsetting, as were other the changes along the journey of this progressive illness. He developed his passion for food from his mum, learning how to source and appreciate fine ingredients and produce, as well as techniques involved in making a fantastic cooking.

“I know a lot of people associate Mum with good basic home cooking, but she was actually very adventurous and creative,” says Simon who is now a senior advisor at New Zealand Food Safey.

Indeed, Dame Alison has been credited with introducing New Zealanders to ‘exotic’ foods such as soy sauce, star anise, filo pastry and garlic.

Simon says his dad was committed to keeping Dame Alison at home for as long as possible and has been a devoted caregiver over the years, more recently with the aid of home support and respite care.

“Without daily respite care, Dad couldn’t have kept Mum at home as long as he did. Making the decision to put Mum, his partner of more than 50 years, into care was very tough for him. But once he’d made it, he felt better and is now able to think about himself and his own health.”

His parents had planned their retirement well, buying a single-level apartment in Orewa overlooking the beach. And while their travel plans did not transpire, Dame Alison took great pleasure and comfort from the beach view.

Simon says his mother had not been resistant to the prospect of care, having considered it in the earlier stages of the condition. And whilst he initially felt some fear around her entering care, he very much changed his mind after seeing the quality of care for his mother – as well as the way it’s enabled his father to refocus on himself and his health.

“There are very lovely people doing the caring; genuinely caring people. And I am just really grateful for that.

“Though I would like to see the current terminology around dementia care change to better reflect the fact that it’s about people and it’s about compassion.

“I mean, no one wants to put their loved one into a ‘psychogeriatric’ facility. That’s a pretty confronting term. So, maybe we need to change how we talk about it as part of making it more real.”

9 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks,Simon for being so open about your mother. I was making some New Way sausage rolls and wondered how Dame Alison is so found this helpful.Thanks also to Health Central.

  2. Thank you Simon for sharing your thoughts and experience with your mums dementia. Having your support/compassion/respect is the best medicine for her.
    I have just finished making the easy, yummy warm crunchy cereal (Ultimate Vegetarian Cookbook) and was thinking of the amazing, iconic, talented Dame Alison.

  3. Helen Upton
    I have been thinking so much about your mother, Simon and wondered how she was. That is just so sad to hear Alison has dementia. She was such a capable lady and myself and many friends just loved her cooking demonstrations. She was always so elegant and addressed her audience in such a professional way but she also had a great sense of humour. I have quite a collection of Alison’s books, my favourite being “Best Baking”, and my husband loves her “Food Processor Book”.
    What would we have done without Alison Holst!

  4. Simon, I was reading one of your Mum’s cookbooks this evening…The Best of Homecooking, it was a favourite of mine and my late husbands. So sorry to hear about your Mum’s Dementia. My Mother also has it too. She will be 90 in August and I brought her over to spend 6 months with me in Oz when she was 87. So glad I got to spend that special time with Mum even though at times it was very hard. It is hard decision to put your Mum into care but my brother and I have also had to do it. This awful virus has not helped and made it difficult for Mum as we really don’t know what she is thinking or if she feels forgotten. My brother has managed to talk to her at a distance in her care home in the UK, but not the same as giving her a hug. You have an amazing Mother, who has made such a great contribution to cooking for us all. Give her a big thank you from us. My daughter also has her cook book. We will always treasure them.

  5. I always regretted not having written to Dame Alison thanking her for her recipes which have been a huge part of every Christmas I remember and the little Christmas book is one I still treasure.

    My late mother also had dementia and it was heart breaking watching her decline. Dad looked after her until she had to go into care, but it took a toll on his health too.

  6. Hi Simon
    I remember some 60 odd years ago when photographer for the NZ Weekly News, your Mum wrote the recipes for the magazine and I photographed the dishes. She made the items each week. One particular trick she used was to brush a little oil on parts of the dish to give the photo a little extra sparkle. As a result of her passion I am a very keen cook and have several of her books. My to die for recipe of hers, is the Creamy Apple Pie with the lattice pastry top, in her Family Favourites book. I have family coming for dinner on Saturday and that was to be the dessert, except that the book has disappeared and I can’t remember the exact recipe, so I am now looking around to see if I can find the book on sale and buy another copy. Naturally I am blaming my wife for misplacing the book. All the best Wal

  7. Hi Simon, Our memories of Alison go right back to 1968 when she wrote us a very detailed letter listing everything she thought we would find useful about living in San Francisco. Your family had just moved there for two years. We only knew her as a TV personality but she had met my mother at a cooking demo in Wanganui before she left and had been told that we were also moving there with a small family. Getting to know your mother as a thoughtful friend and fellow Kiwi in the sometimes strangely alien world of California solved any problems with homesickness. Bob remembers helping her record her Egg Recipes in a mock up studio in his place of work as an Acoustical Engineer.. You may remember the dozens of waffles drenched in maple syrup you and Kirsten ate at our place as we shared child minding duties to allow your parents opportunities for weekends away. And they took their turn with ours. Her unpretentious enthusiasm for life and willingness to share her gifts with others was abundantly displayed in that letter that brought us into her life and the publications that bore her name. She will never be forgotten. Bob and Prue

  8. Dear Simon,
    Thank you for your story of your mother of whom I am very fond. My history with Alison is long, as I go back to my time as a Junior lecturer in 1964 at the then school of Home Science, where she was responsible for training the new lecturers in the intricacies of teaching “Foods” to the first year students at the school. She helped me develop a life long love of cooking and experimenting with different foods. Her creativity amazed me and I loved every minute of her instruction. Then in later years she very kindly prepared our family for our move to San Francisco, sharing her experiences and many useful hints. I am so glad she has had such a caring family. Thank you again Simon. Thank you, Alison. You will always have a place in my heart.

  9. I am so saddened by your story written regarding your mother. It is such a sad situation to be in but so pleased you all realised the professional care that she needed. I cared for my husband for as long as I could, he went into a care society for me to have respite care & they were the ones that took the decision from me & would not let me bring him home. I was gutted but later to realise this was needed for my health.

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