A way to be independent

July 28, 2004|By Susan Middaugh | Susan Middaugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The kitchen classroom in a renovated bottling plant on Washington Boulevard in Lansdowne is equipped with a double sink, ovens, a gas range and an 8-foot counter.

But the lessons being taught here have nothing to do with exploring the secrets of ethnic cuisines or the intricacies of flavor combinations.

Here at the offices of Blind Industries of Maryland, the lesson is one of self-confidence and independence.

Twice a week, the agency offers cooking classes to senior citizens who have lost some or all of their vision. Instruction is tailored to individual needs, and the participants come for as long as they want. They practice a variety of cooking skills, such as frying, baking, chopping and dicing.

One recent morning, instructor Jesse James Jones Jr., 45, teaches Lawrence Sewell, 67, of Baltimore how to fry sausages, using his senses of smell, hearing and touch.

"Put your hand on top of mine," says Jones, a former security detective, who lost his sight because of glaucoma. "Take the fork. Feel my fingers. Feel my thumb. Get that fork in there and turn them over. Feel that space. You got to get them laying down in the pan."

Preparing meals and navigating around a kitchen is a new experience for Sewell, who lives with his 87-year-old mother. Learning to use the stove has been his greatest challenge. "It can be a little bit scary," he says. "You have to keep your mind on what you're doing and ask questions."

Most seniors lose their vision gradually because of age-related diseases, such as macular degeneration, cataracts or as the result of a stroke or diabetes, says Ruth Sager, coordinator of senior services for Blind Industries and the developer of the independent living program, which is free to residents of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties.

Many seniors want to remain independent, she says, but they need new skills to cope with their changed circumstances. In the cooking classes, they learn how to tell the difference between a can of beans and a can of tomatoes. How to bake bread and make a salad. And how to fill the dishwasher and put away the knives.

Jones and Sewell work side by side. Nearby is Gracie Skipper, 87, of Baltimore City, who is peeling potatoes and onions with a large knife. Skipper has side vision only, a consequence of an accidental injury two decades ago, and, more recently, burst blood vessels and diabetes. Unlike Sewell, Skipper learned to cook when she was 13 years old, and she still cooks for her daughter and her family who live with her. Skipper comes to Blind Industries to socialize.

"I always use a butcher knife," she says, "and I never cut myself." Although confident of her abilities in the kitchen, she takes precautions, such as using the back burners of the stove to prevent an unexpected mishap.

Jones emphasizes safety throughout the lesson. He reminds the students to keep clothing and rags away from the stove and stresses good posture to prevent accidents, the need to keep handles turned to the back of the stove and the importance of using potholders.

Such precautions are especially important for diabetics and seniors who have lost their ability to distinguish hot from cold, Sager says.

Instead of talking about putting something "over there" as a sighted instructor might, Jones gives directions that are specific and that draw on sensory images.

"That clicking sound can't continue," Jones says when Sewell turns on a gas burner. The clicking sound indicates the gas flame is high. Sewell has his hand on the knob, which regulates the flame. Twelve o'clock is the off position, Jones says, 6 o'clock is medium-low. "Go to 6 o'clock," he tells Sewell. "Now turn it down."

The sausages sizzle. "Feel that space. Get that fork in there," Jones says, "turn them over." Jones tells Sewell he can tell the meat is done by inserting his fork and noting the texture. "Feel how hard that is on top. Don't that feel like it's done?"

On other occasions, Sewell uses his senses of smell and taste to see if the food is sufficiently cooked. He uses a timer and he has a "talking watch" that helps him estimate, he says.

Sewell joined the program two years ago at the urging of his sister. He started to lose his sight in 1995 and says at first he had "an attitude" about being legally blind.

With the help of other people who have lost their sight, he says he is learning to cope and feels more confident.

Sewell has picked up new skills, such as using a white cane, asking for assistance when he goes shopping, changing money and using the telephone.

He has learned to cook fried eggs, fried potatoes, chicken, scrambled eggs and steak. But, so far, he hasn't cooked at home yet. "My mother has gotten used to doing everything for us," he says. "She does most of the cooking."

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