Men sent to cookery lessons by GPs so they can look after sick wives

Men are being sent to cookery lessons by their GPs so they can look after their sick wives

  • Norman Johnson, 79, from Surrey, attends the Man With A Pan cookery course  
  • His wife’ multiple sclerosis has left her in a wheelchair and barely able to move
  • Mr Johnson is one of many encouraged by a doctor to attend the cookery classes
  • Known as social prescribing, GPs are encouraged to recommend support groups

Norman Johnson, 79, is sautéing lamb mince, gently spiced with cinnamon, cumin and turmeric.

His keema curry looks, and smells, delicious – and I know from experience that making one from scratch isn’t entry-grade cooking.

So I’m surprised to discover that a few months back, Norman’s culinary repertoire didn’t stretch much further than an omelette.

‘I’ve been married for 54 years and until recently my wife did all the cooking. I could do eggs and a sandwich but that was about it,’ he tells me before plunging a teaspoon into a steaming pot of lentil dhal, tasting it for seasoning.

Norman Johnson (pictured), 79, from Surrey, now cooks for his wife after her multiple sclerosis worsened, leaving her wheelchair-bound and barely able to move

Norman joined Man In A Pan upon the recommendation of his doctor, to help him learn cook. Founder Robin Van Creveld (pictured with reporter Eve Simmons) specialises in community cooking projects, and believes that the benefits of his classes span far beyond the kitchen

Norman explains that his wife has suffered from multiple sclerosis since she was 20. In the past five years her condition has rapidly deteriorated, leaving her wheelchair-bound and barely able to move.

‘It’s now my job to look after her,’ says the retired carpenter, and father of two grown-up children, from Surrey. ‘Whatever she needs, I’ll do it for her. I had to learn to cook for her, but also for myself.’

We are at a cooking class at the Camberley community centre in Surrey, designed to get men into the kitchen. Many of the 150 regular attendees, like Norman, are full-time carers for their unwell spouse. Others are widowers, suddenly tasked with the everyday jobs that were once the work of their wives.

Some suffer mental health problems and are seeking therapeutic activities; others are simply there to make a friend or two.

The cookery course, Man With A Pan, which runs in Brighton, Kent and Surrey Heath, is, as ordinary as it seems, part of a cutting-edge health trend.

Known as social prescribing, NHS GPs are now encouraged to tell patients about support groups or community projects rather than dish out pills. It might be a local gym that offers free or discounted membership, an open-to-all choir or a gardening club.

In the case of Man With A Pan, many of the budding chefs have been told by their family doctor to sign up – and have gained some much-needed culinary skills as a result. The mental and physical health burden of carers is well-known, and almost half of them are men. A report last year by charity Carers Trust found that one in three carers suffers ill-health of some kind.

Norman is not the only person to attend the cooking class at the Camberley community centre in Surrey. He is pictured alongside Edward (second-from-right), Hemant Patel (third-from-right) and chef Robin Van Creveld (second-from-left). Reporter Eve Simmons is also pictured 

Older men may be especially vulnerable, apparently because of a reluctance to seek help. Research suggests that older men are far more likely to be socially isolated than their female counterparts.

Lesley Carter, a nurse at charity Age UK, says: ‘Women will find out what is out there by talking to people, but men are often shy and lack the confidence.’

For carers, the situation can be even more complicated. ‘Carers take looking after their loved one very seriously but, inevitably, end up forgetting about themselves,’ Lesley says.

She heads up the charity’s taskforce on malnutrition, and says diet is a particularly pressing problem.

‘There’s a generation of men whose wives have done all the shopping and cooking. They don’t even know where to go to buy the ingredients.

‘Most are living on fish and chips, takeaways and sandwiches, or go down the pub for dinner. It’s particularly difficult in cultures where the recipes are complicated, but they aren’t familiar with other food.’

And it’s for this reason that Man With A Pan has been a blessing for another man on the course, 66-year-old Dev.

The retired telecoms engineer has enjoyed 25 years of his wife Nina’s elaborate Indian curries – made from recipes rooted in their shared cultural heritage.

Reporter Eve Simmons joined the men cooking and helped serve the finished meal. She is pictured alongside (from right) Norman Thompson, Edward , Hemant Patel, Deva Patel and chef Robin Van Creveld

Dev tells me that five years ago, Nina was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Not only did intensive treatment leave her exhausted and unable to cook, she struggled to eat too.

‘She was completely wiped out, but we had two teenage kids to feed. We relied on takeaways,’ says Dev, who rarely cooked throughout his marriage.

Despite making a full recovery, Nina was worried how her husband would fend for himself, should the cancer return.

So, a year ago, she encouraged him to sign up for Man With A Pan. He’s now completed two five-week courses.

‘I love it,’ he says. ‘We learn how to cook food from different cultures, including curries.

‘I’ve discovered salmon and baking too. Now I make dinner for my kids which puts Nina’s mind at rest.’

Man With A Pan founder Robin Van Creveld specialises in community cooking projects, and believes that the benefits of these classes span far beyond the kitchen. He says: ‘Crucially, it’s a place where people feel relaxed enough to talk to and support each other.’

Norman hands me a plate of steaming hot curry, complete with lentil, coconut dhal and an Asian-style salad.

‘You staying for dinner, love?’ he asks. Well, I rather think I might.

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