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Food has the power to bring people together like almost nothing else. Senior living communities can harness that power by offering exciting engagement opportunities that appeal to residents’ love of food.

“There’s a huge social component to dining that goes beyond the functional need for food,” says Arthur Silva, senior vice president for Sodexo Seniors North America. “It’s a way for residents to connect with family and friends.”

That bond can be fostered in senior living through well-designed spaces, interactive opportunities, and shared food traditions.

Rethinking dining spaces

Restaurant-style dining is rapidly supplanting the cafeteria-style model of the past. While recent generations of residents welcome the change, some are reluctant to give up the perception of greater choice offered by buffets. Communities are upgrading venues that can satisfy both desires with and provide plenty of culinary options.

Friendship Village of Schaumberg, Ill., recently completed a major revamping of its dining venue in the independent living neighborhood. Its former space, a cafeteria, was considered outdated both by residents and in comparison to other communities.

The space is now a cutting-edge full-service restaurant called Mosaic. Its most outstanding feature is the fully open kitchen, situated in the center of the space. Diners can see their food being prepared and even chat with the chef.

“It’s a complete transformation of what they had before,” says Morrison Living’s Lisa Reid, who oversaw the project as general manager for dining services.

Not only is the new restaurant visually appealing, but it’s designed to be a social hub in the community. Diners enter through a gathering area before being seated by a hostess. They can also relax with a drink in the nearby pub before and after dinner. The community’s activity room is just across the hall—another connection to spark interest, anticipation, and socialization.

Residents were involved in planning the renovation project from the get-go. They were invited to participate in focus groups to determine their preferences and desires for the new space. Their main concern was maintaining a wide selection of menu choices. They also requested a bar and a café with grab-and-go items. With live entertainment, the bar creates a well-rounded experience. “That definitely has been a huge win,” says Reid. The café is still in progress.

Resident satisfaction increased after the renovations. “We were giving them back more than we took away,” says Phillip Dopson, who spearheaded the project as vice president of design and retail at Morrison Living. “There are so many ways to gather around food in these beautiful spaces.”

Interactive opportunities

A bin full of donated packaged snacks for children, such as granola bars and Goldfish.
Everlan at Louisville collects snacks for children for the Blessings in a Backpack program as part of its culinary-connected community volunteer program.

Mosaic also includes a teaching kitchen where hands-on classes are held for residents, families, and prospects. The classes can be streamed into apartments or gathering spaces via the community’s TV channel. “Residents enjoy the fact that we have what is truly like our own Food Network show,” Reid says.

Food can be an attractive way to engage residents in volunteer projects. At Dominion Senior Living’s Everlan community Everlan of Louisville, executive chef Jim Cipkowski creates public to-go lunches every other month to raise funds for worthy causes. July’s offering was hamburgers, pasta salad and watermelon; it will benefit Blessings in a Backpack. September’s menu will feature chili and corn muffins.

The entire amount of the $5 requested donation is given to each month’s chosen charity. Everlan donates all the lunch food and staff time. For the Blessings in a Backpack activity, purchasers could donate nonperishable kid-friendly foods in lieu of cash. Residents will fill backpacks with collected items for the students at a local school. Many of the residents also contributed food and funds.

Cipkowski finds that participating in the fundraisers helps residents as much as the recipients. “We want them to understand that they are still important in the world, that they can still make a contribution.”

Culture and traditions

Cultural traditions around food can be springboards for enrichment as well. Understanding and meeting the needs of a community’s various cultural groups can go a long way toward making everyone feel at home.

Tracy Blazer, regional vice president of operations at Morrison Living, manages numerous Jewish communities and noticed a need for more cultural education of staff, particularly around holidays and food customs. With better staff understanding of how, when, and why to offer particular food experiences, Jewish residents would be more engaged in celebrating their holidays, she thought.

At Blazer’s suggestion, Morrison created the new role of national liaison for Jewish communities. One of Blazer’s first projects in that role was to form a team to create a 12-page Passover guide with history and recipes. The team will create a guide for each Jewish holiday. Every Morrison community will have access to the guides. In mainstream communities, cultural foods can be an enrichment opportunity for everyone.

The idea of “cultural foods” can and should be interpreted creatively. One of Blazer’s Jewish communities in California invited celebrity chef Jet Tila to come in and show the residents how to make kosher Asian cuisine. He cooked a meal, then went into the dining room to mingle. “It was a lot of fun and super-engaging for the residents,” Blazer says.

Tastes and memories

Cooking demonstrations, especially if they’re hands-on, are an effective way to bring back memories and keep food traditions alive. Accessing those memories and talking about them is especially valuable for residents in memory care.

“Get creative and think outside the box on how to get residents engaged in the process,” Blazer says. “When they’re engaged in food, they’re much happier.”

Helping people with dementia participate more fully in the dining experience requires creativity and patience from staff. Sodexo’s B program addresses some of those challenges with elements such as hand-held foods for residents who have difficulty handling utensils. It also offers guidance about how to arrange place settings and how to present menu options in a way that allows memory care residents to choose their meals and eat with a minimum of frustration.

What’s on the horizon

Broad changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-lasting impacts on dining in senior living. Communities may have to give up buffets and self-serve salad bars in favor of attended stations, where staff can assemble salads to order or prepare parts of a meal in front of residents. Those options would satisfy the desire for choice that is so crucial to resident satisfaction.Having options presented in a visually exciting way keeps the fun of dining alive. “When people lose their choices, they lose some of the culinary magic of dining,” Dopson says.

The pandemic also brought more technology into the dining experience just as with every other part of life.

“COVID-19 really accelerated mobile technology usage in senior living dining,” Silva says. “Online meal ordering in senior living increased 500 percent from 2019 to 2020.”

Online ordering is flexible and can be done at any time of day. Some apps also provide nutrition information.

Technology aimed at personalizing the dining experience is also emerging. Silva says that keeping track of resident dining preferences in order to offer optimum menus will become increasingly important.

With all the changes occurring around dining, communities can lead by example to help residents adjust to new ways of doing things.

“You have to step out of your comfort zone to encourage them to step out of theirs,” Reid says. “Just because it’s something that’s not traditionally done in the senior living setting doesn’t mean that it can’t be.”

TIPS FOR MAXIMIZING FOOD-BASED ENGAGEMENT

• In dining venues, appeal to all the senses by considering acoustics, aromas, décor, lighting, and the tactile sensations of the tabletops and utensils. Sensory experience can be particularly engaging and enjoyable in memory care dining.

• Look at your dining venues from the residents’ perspective. If you didn’t have to eat there every day, what would make you want to come back again?

• Bring in food trucks or a few farm market tents so residents can take part in these trends.

• Try offering casual and picnic food for outside dining with visitors on the weekends.

• As some senior living communities build teaching and demonstration kitchens, consider getting chefs from provider communities in the same region, student chefs from a culinary or trade school, culinary workers who want more career experience, or local restaurant chefs, to keep the space lively and surprising.

• Even if you don’t have a demonstration kitchen or a place to cook together, food-related events for small groups aren’t off the table. You might try:

• Volunteer activities can get not only residents, but also families and loved ones involved. Food drives can appeal to visitors, as can special items sold with proceeds donated.

• Residents interested in sustainability and food access issues can help track food waste and develop ways to conserve and reduce energy and waste.

• Be willing to adapt to changing times. To stay competitive, keep up to date with current trends. Better yet, try to think ahead.

• Encourage residents to try new things, whether it’s a new menu item, a new venue, or a cooking class.

• Add interest to the daily dining experience. In addition to offering varied menu items, consider making some meals feel more special by using tablecloths only at certain times. Playing music or encouraging costumes or hats can be fun and engaging.

• Ask residents for their input about food and dining preferences, including cooking classes or food-related volunteer opportunities they’d like to do.

• Many residents and employees are interested in sharing their traditions, cultures, and foodways. Special lunches or dinners planned by a small group of residents and employees together can become a friendly experience in learning, with food, decorations, and even music all playing a part. Or go simpler with a special dessert offering, or an afternoon tasting party.

• Above all, make sure the food you offer is the best it can be!

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