As a cookbook author, Paula Wolfert has enjoyed a remarkable and illustrious career. She has five James Beard Awards to her name, countless other accolades, and has been referred to as the “Queen” of Mediterranean cooking. Now, Wolfert, ever resourceful and unremittingly curious, rises to meet her next challenge, that of her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Wolfert’s spunk, ceaseless wit, and candor, has brought a bright, a new light into the Alzheimer’s discussion as she works in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association as an advocate.
Here, Wolfert talks about how she handled the news of her diagnosis and shares her determination to be a Warrior not a Worrier.
When you got your diagnosis, you said that you didn’t cry or get upset. Can you talk about that?
Well, after the visit to the doctor, I had all these tests and the MRI, and they proved my worst fears. The fact that I didn’t cry was because I was prepared, I mean, I knew that I had had something wrong with me. And instead of feeling sorry for myself, well, I guess I did feel a little sorry for myself, I felt that it was really important to share this news with my kids and my close friends. Friends simply couldn’t believe me, because I’m so verbal. You know, everybody says, “Oh, everybody forgets at your age, you’re having senior moments.” I was probably more upset about that than I was about the diagnosis. I guess, people only think in terms of the late form of dementia, and they assume that all people with Alzheimer’s are zombies. I was amazed at how little awareness there was about the many different stages of dementia. That did get me upset, but not the diagnosis because I was ready for it. I knew.
When we first spoke you said: “I have spent my whole life repairing myself.” Can you expand on that?
Let me give you an example. My first husband left me in Morocco with two children and no money, and he ran off with a blonde ice goddess to Sweden; this is after about 12 years of marriage. It was in May of ’68; he met this girl -- I never met her -- and he told me he wasn’t coming back. Well, then, back and forth, back and forth. Finally, I just realized I had to regroup, get up and at it, so I told him: “Go.” He went off forever, and I took the kids -- my parents were broke at the time, so they weren’t able to help me -- I moved back to New York and picked up my career, which I had had many, many years before as a foodie.
I just became excited to find out what I could do to deal with this problem, and put my energy into it, and reinvent myself, which is what I’ve done more or less.
But anyway, that’s what I meant when I said that I repair myself. So, when this happened to me, my diagnosis, I wasn’t afraid to challenge myself and to try new things. I just jumped in as soon as I knew there was something wrong; I did the research, I figured it out. And then I just became excited to find out what I could do to deal with this problem and put my energy into it and reinvent myself, which is what I’ve done more or less. Since I understood that "Big Pharma" had no cure, I went about finding natural products to help me. I did take the meds that the doctor gave me, but that’s not a cure.
You’re exploring the healing properties of food. Can you talk about your new regimen?
OK, look, I am no longer able to smell or taste the way I used to; I’m not the professional food person I was. I can’t turn back to the fifty years of writing and the world of cooking. I’d love to. I don’t want to walk away from all these people who care about me, and I care about them. But I have to move on, not just to save myself, but there’s a bigger picture out there.
I was on the Mediterranean diet for 50 years, so it doesn’t protect you, there’s something else going on with Alzheimer’s. I’m sure it made me healthy, but I don’t believe it’s the cure-all for Alzheimer’s; people in the Mediterranean have Alzheimer’s.
Now, I’m following two doctors. Dr. Alexandro Junger, the author of “Clean Gut,” and then Dr. David Perlmutter, the author of “Grain Brain.” And I have taken their ideas and I’m pretty much doing what they suggest: the coconut water, the cutting out gluten, all those things. And then I created a drink, based on Dr. Junger’s idea of having a smoothie every morning. And it’s shocking to people to see what I put in it! [Ed Note: For Paula’s Smoothie Recipe see end].
Do you feel better for this regimen?
My doctor tells me I am really stable. The doctor has a nutritionist on her staff, and she went over everything that I take and all the supplements, and except for two, which she said were ridiculous because there’s no proof they get into the brain, she said everything I’m taking is fine.
And you can’t believe my skin! And I’m going to be 76 in April! Now, OK, my mother looked very young, my daughter is fifty, and she looks very young, so we all look young, but I look younger! You know, the funny thing is, is that I didn’t really lose many pounds but I went down two Chico sizes, and the important part is it must have turned into muscle, because I do exercise every day, and I do go to yoga three times a week.
You’ve talked about your Grandmother Bertha and her fighting spirit. How has her example helped?
During the Second World War, I lived with my grandmother and grandfather on their farm, and she used to let me play in the Victory Garden, mostly among the sunflowers. I was afraid of dogs, so they bought me a pet goat. She was not a good cook, neither was my mother by the way, but she was a storyteller. She never shut up either, so that’s probably where I got it!
I remember my grandmother telling me, “We can’t win this war unless we fight,” and that I still believe.
She loved to laugh and she filled me with stories -- like the one about a bear who was brought into the village to lie down one by one on the men so they could feel this incredible bear’s energy. Stories like that, which I believed were true at the time! I think I credit my compulsive need to research to her tendency to exaggerate! I remember my grandmother telling me, “We can’t win this war unless we fight,” and that I still believe. You have to come out and talk about what you have, you can’t be ashamed. Terry Pratchett, the English author, has dementia like me, except mine came late on and his is early on, but he says, “To kill the demon, you have to say it’s name.”
Have you discovered anything about yourself since the diagnosis?
Yes. Tomorrow I won’t remember this interview. I can’t remember yesterday. Unless it’s something exceptional -- OK, maybe I will remember this! Now, you might say to me, “Does that upset you?” Yeah, but it relieves me of a whole lot of things too. I mean, I don’t feel bad and I don’t feel good, I just keep going and I’m living in the moment.
I just keep going and I’m living in the moment.
I have noticed some things about my relationship with people on the internet, that was interesting. I came out to all my friends and family right away; it took a while before I came out on Facebook in the middle of a conversation with some people. I discovered I have a deep feeling of friendship for so many people I’ve never even met. And I guess this is a similar kind of openness that you have when you tell someone you’re secrets. It gave me a whole new way to respond to people and to talk to them.
What would you tell someone feeling shame or in denial about memory loss?
It’s very easy in the early stages to be in denial. Unfortunately, if you don’t deal with it, by the time you have to deal with it, you’re in the advanced stage when nothing can be done to help you. Once people understand that, I think they might rethink Alzheimer’s as we understand it today.
Now, there’s a problem, I understand that people under 65 don’t want to reveal their sickness, well, maybe now with Obamacare hopefully, anybody would have the insurance, but they might lose their job. I mean, there’s things that can go wrong if you come out and tell people. In the state of California, if a doctor knows that you have this, they have to alert the DMV and a lot of other things that can absolutely ruin your life, when there’s such a long, slow beginning, which is the reason people are in denial. It’s a real problem that we have to work out. Because those people with Mild Cognitive Impairment or Early Stage are the perfect participants for trials.
So, I talk to people all the time about coming out. And in the meantime we have to get some cures. I say, whatever you do, get started on the coconut oil!
Tell me about your new Memory Cafe.
There are warriors and worriers. I’m a warrior but there are worriers; the people who worry. I started the Memory Cafe with the help of the Alzheimer's Association, and both are invited: the worriers and the warriors, as long as they’re in the early stages. It’s a free, informal social setting that brings people together who are in a similar situation. You don’t have the stigma of the dementia label, because everybody has it or is worried about having it. And you can exchange ideas and thoughts. We’ll find out what people want and what people need. The idea started in Europe in the Netherlands, and it’s gaining momentum in England and America, Australia. So, it’s big. They tried to do it about six months ago here in Sonoma and nobody showed up, so I said, “Let me do it!” We sent out newsletters, we did all kinds of things to get people to sign up, because I’m an advocate.
Let’s talk about that and your work with the Alzheimer’s Association.
Alzheimer’s research of course is a priority for me, and the Alzheimer’s Association needs to raise money. As an activist, I can’t do things alone.
I want to bring awareness. I want to encourage worried people to get tested.
So I joined the Alzheimer’s Association, and now they’re making me an advocate, which means that I present myself as an optimistic person talking about Alzheimer’s with others who have it, which is easy enough for me to do, because that’s all I talk about these days. I want to bring awareness. I want to encourage worried people to get tested. As I pointed out, there are problems with being tested, but on the other hand, if you’re not tested, it’s worse.
You’ve been married for 30 years. What’s been the key to that happy partnership?
Laughter and love make our relationship strong. We both have wit. We make jokes. You know, the wit part of my brain hasn’t been attacked yet because I can still make jokes! And I can still finish his story and he can finish mine. We’re both writers and yet we’re not jealous of each other because I kill chickens, and he kills people -- he writes mysteries! We relax together; we watch television together every evening. We don’t really go out very much. But he doesn’t ask me anymore what I thought of the show the next day, because I don’t remember. Take “Breaking Bad.” For four years I watched it every single week that it was on, loved it, yet the last year, before it finally ended, I never could remember anything that happened the next day. When they had the recap at the beginning of the next week, I sort of got the idea and I enjoyed it anyway. But I’m still the same person. And it’s amazing after 30 years, we still have a strong relationship and it’s very encouraging for the next 20 years!
Paula’s Shocking Smoothie Recipe
[Ed Note: Paula does tweak the recipe, so this is the current version.]
Every two weeks I wash, stem, and cut up two bunches of kale and two bunches of whatever leafy greens look good at the market. I personally worry about too much intake of oxalates, so I often boil the greens for a few minutes, drain and chill, rather than always consuming them raw.
I divide the cooked or raw greens into 14 portions and slip each into a plastic bag.
Then I divide a one pound bag of frozen, organic, wild blueberries into 14 portions and add each to the packet of greens.
The greens and berries are then chilled in the refrigerator while I prepare the avocados.
I blend half a cup of Nutiva coconut oil, half a cup of MCT oil, the juice of one lemon, and the flesh of two avocados into a creamy mass.
I then chill it, divide it into 14 clumps, and add each clump to the packet.
Now, I don’t stop there!
I then add a tablespoon scoop of dried protein powder previously mixed with a little bit of flax seed or chia seed, cacao, cinnamon.
I add a tablespoon of almond butter, or a handful of walnuts or cashews, into each bag, and a tablet of turmeric because I can’t stand swallowing it, it’s so big. And then I put in a tablet of DHA, the fish oil, for Omega 3’s.
From time to time, I’ll add a little bit of raw beet or half a banana, rosemary extract, a drop or two of Vitamin D3.
I then seal each packet, and pack it into a big freezer bag and keep it in the freezer.
The night before, I take one bag and put it in the refrigerator and let it defrost over night.
I then put that in my VitaMix along with coconut water and sometimes a little kefir, and I grind it. It makes four cups and it’s an enormous thick mess.
It doesn’t taste bad but it doesn’t taste great either. I don’t care. I want to get all this stuff out of the way.
For information regarding Paula's upcoming fundraising and outreach visit Mediterranean Feast.
For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com