Dining is an important experience for residents at senior living communities. It’s more than just a healthy meal; it’s also a social highlight for the residents. This is why many senior communities focus not only on the importance of healthy nutrition, which is essential for seniors, but also on making the food delicious and the dining experience pleasant. But preparing fine food for a large group of seniors isn’t easy. Innovation is the name of the game. Seniors have unique nutritional needs, both as a group and as individuals.
When planning meals for seniors, factors such as decreased ability to taste, medication side effects and changing appetites must be considered. In addition to religious or cultural diet restrictions, seniors also often need special diets to help manage chronic illnesses such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. Communities must also be prepared to help new residents who are obese to slim down, or to help new residents who are underweight regain muscle mass.
How do senior living communities manage to achieve these varied goals while maintaining a rich dining experience for elderly residents? Here are 11 interesting and innovative ways that senior communities are promoting health and happiness through a commitment to nutrition and great food:
The preferences of residents are a key factor in menu creation at senior communities. Communities consult with their residents as a first step of the menu planning process. In fact, many senior communities have formal resident food committees to facilitate dialogue between residents and dining staff. Communities will also poll their residents or have recipe contests in order to make dining as resident-centered as possible.
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The orchestration of a menu at senior living communities is by no means an ad hoc process. Communities make sure that the food that’s served has sufficient vitamins and minerals, and that it meets other basic requirements. For example, Geoff Davis, an executive at the senior living provider Merrill Gardens, told us that their menus are “screened by registered dieticians who review and validate nutrition.”
Senior living communities personalize the dining experience. At many communities the chef will walk from table to table during meal time, getting to know the residents and welcoming feedback about the food. Residents with dietary restrictions can usually be accommodated, and at some communities chefs are given photos of residents who have special dietary needs to help them avoid mistakes and know who they are cooking for. Chris Meyer, Culinary Services Director of Aegis of Issaquah, told us a saying that’s helped him in his role cooking and planning meals for seniors: “I have a quote I tell myself every day. A chef in a fine dining restaurant in Seal Beach said, ‘Tonight you will be feeding your grandma, your mother, your sister and daughter. Do not disappoint them.’ This quote has run through my head for years. It has helped me keep the kitchen standards high and fits in perfect with Aegis Living standards.”
Many senior communities offer flexible mealtimes (“anytime dining”) so that residents can adopt a schedule and routine that fits their unique preferences and characteristics. According to a recent study, seniors also report higher levels of satisfaction with assisted living communities that provide flexible dining hours. We should note that those communities that do not offer all-day dining do make snacks available between meals.
Homemade meals may not seem that innovative considering that humans have been cooking for thousands of years, but made-from-scratch food it is indeed innovative for large healthcare facilities. But assisted living communities have moved away from institutional approaches and serve home cooked food whenever possible. For example, Atria Senior Living told us, “Atria chefs use over 90% of made-from-scratch items to create over 44,000 meals per day in communities across the nation.”
Classes, lectures and continuing education are a big part of the senior living experience. Many communities provide culinary classes and demos for their residents. Jason Childers, an executive at the senior living company LeisureCare told us that they often give cooking exhibitions to residents so that the seniors who live at the community “can watch what the chef is creating.” Atria senior living communities offer food lectures, and one chef even received an award from the International Council on Active Aging for the class that he gives at his community, Atria Campana del Rio. Sunrise Senior Living is also mixing food education and awareness into their activities. Sunrise’s Vice President of Dining Services wrote that their communities have also “developed programs with our activities teams focused on food and nutrition, bringing our Sunrise chefs out of the kitchen and sharing their expertise with residents.”
While many senior living communities are part of large national chains, regional food is incorporated into the menus. Emeritus Senior Living notes on their website, for example, that their menus “reflect the taste and style of the geographic region”. And Chris Meyer told us that Aegis communities also serve regional favorites. He noted, for example, that residents in “Southern California enjoy more Mexican food and [residents in] Washington State enjoy fish.” He also added that local produce is incorporated into meals whenever possible: “Local and organic should be staples in all senior living. In the months that are possible local is the preferred choice.”
Assisted living communities operated by BMA Management, LTD are participating in a USDA study to test the “Eat Smart, Live Strong” nutrition program. The goal of the program is to help and encourage seniors to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and the pilot is helping to determine “how best to introduce the Eat Smart, Live Strong program to residents of senior communities and how to keep residents interested and involved.”
Seniors who have difficulty chewing or swallowing sometimes require a diet of soft food. Many assisted living communities are able to accommodate this need and provide pureed food to residents when required. Brookdale Senior Living goes the extra mile by training its chefs to present pureed food so that it’s beautiful, palatable and dignified. After all, if it doesn’t look great and taste great, the residents won’t eat it. Puree of Fresh Asparagus Soup, a recipe published by Brookdale, is just one example showing that pureed foods needn’t taste or look like baby food. Pureed food can be both delicious and attractive.
A recent study found that two out of three people over age 60 have hypertension (high blood pressure). Heart disease is also very common among older people too. For this reason, communities strive to provide meals low in fat and without added salt. To ensure that the healthy options taste great, chefs at senior communities often use herbs and spices to substitute for salt. They will also, for example, sometimes substitute yogurt for butter to reduce fat.
Food is more than our body’s fuel and sustenance. It’s a uniquely communal and social aspect of life that can bring people together and unite them. Special events at senior communities, from holidays to community-based activities such as “Senior Prom” largely revolve around delicious food, drink, and hors d’oeuvres.
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– Image courtesy Flickr user Matthew Hine –