Everyone knows eating the right foods and having good nutrition is an important part of leading a healthy life. For individuals in senior living or care communities, dining and getting appropriate nutrition can often serve up a host of challenges.
Residents or patients in these communities often become “picky” eaters. Food preferences can vary, depending on changes in their mood or routine, or simply because they might be having difficulty discerning colors and temperatures. Seniors with health challenges might also experience chewing and swallowing difficulties, alongside with problems holding cups or utensils.
To address the critical importance of food and nutrition, industry-leading communities such as StoneGate Senior Living supported communities are “freshening up” their approach by focusing on nutritious meals and elevating the dining experience to create a safe, stress-free, and enjoyable mealtime.
Getting ready for mealtime
“A predictable dining experience helps residents feel in control and stay connected to who they are at the core,” says Antoinette Holford, a registered dietician and StoneGate’s education and training manager. “Supportive dining in memory care is, first, about providing healthy meals and, second, about safeguarding a sense of self.”
“We make every effort to create and maintain a familiar routine. For senior care residents living with dementia – whether in a nursing home, SNF, assisted living, or rehabilitation center – regular mealtimes provide consistency, and that’s important to their dining success. If the routine is altered, confusion can set in, affecting their mood for hours.”
What’s on the menu?
Extra care is taken to make each meal flavorful and visually appealing. Heart-healthy selections use herbs and spices as primary seasonings and for those with chewing or swallowing challenges, nutritious, eye-pleasing pureed foods are freshly prepared.
Providing ample choice is also essential, and StoneGate Senior Living supported communities dining services offer a variety of meal options. Printed menus are available for those who can read, and for those with reading difficulties, plates of food are displayed for their easy selection. Along with regular mealtimes in the dining room, room service is available at any time.
Another key to a successful dining experience is having a person-centered approach. For residents
struggling with dementia, Holford says: “We assess each resident’s stage in the dementia journey and build dining services around their individual needs.”
Food aromas, sights, and sounds evoke memories that are hidden away in the brain. For example, a person with dementia may not be able to verbalize why the aroma of roast beef and gravy is comforting to them. But we can see by their response that it is. Food can be a mood changer, in the best of ways.
Staff and family members also work together to make food decisions. The resident’s or patient’s dining history is explored and preferences are taken into account. Holford tells the story of a resident who enjoyed fast food. Day after day, his family brought him a hamburger and French fries.
When the family took an extended vacation, the nutrition services manager noticed the resident stopped eating. “She asked area fast-food restaurants for some take-out containers with their logo. Each night, the staff prepared his meal and served it to him in a takeout box. His routine was restored, and his interest in eating returned!”
Setting the table
We like to mimic the family table and set the stage for interaction. For example, a bowl of salad and a basket of bread are put on the table to pass around family style. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Something that happened four or five hours or maybe even a day earlier may affect the resident’s mood and response to meal participation, though they may not be able to define it. We strive to respond to changing behaviors with patience, flexibility, and encouragement.
Every effort is made to create a calm and relaxing experience. Diners are typically seated at tables of four to six. “They can sit wherever they like, but often choose the same seat and table. Sitting in the same place enables residents to have control,” Holford explains. “They’re in their spot, and they entirely own it. We also use square edges as opposed to round, because square lines clearly define space.”
Mealtime is typically a social event. “If the resident can’t verbally participate in a conversation, just being at the table can evoke a feel-good response. The experience of being in the presence of others is stimulating in the best of ways. Our goal is not only to provide nutritious meals but also to create a sense of connection and belonging.”
Lastly, Holford reminds that having a nutritious and enjoyable dining experience in senior care relies on carefully trained frontline staff. “These are the ones who sit with residents while they eat,” Holford says. “They’re the first to observe how needs may change. They see how much a resident is eating, what they are eating, and how they are interacting with their surroundings – and can recommend new approaches to food and environment.