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Emerging Trends in Senior Dining Experience

As the senior population grows, so do their needs, tastes, and preferences in the realm of dining. Recent initiatives to improve the senior dining experience have even caught the attention of former hospitality industry professionals, and their influence is steadily transforming the way seniors experience food on a daily basis.

Pair the changing demographics with a rising global awareness of whole foods and organic, local cultivation, and there’s even more opportunity for senior living professionals to revamp the way their residents interact around food. Here are a few rising trends changing the senior living dining scene.

Engage personally with residents

Senior living facilities are taking cues from popular cooking shows and competitions to institute their own contests or otherwise engage residents in the food preparation process. Shawn Stanchfield, a former restauranteur and college culinary arts instructor, now directs food service for Vintage Senior and oversees 23 facilities in California and Washington. He has developed a program called “Cooking from the Heart,” which encourages residents to share family recipes with their communities. Staff do their best to duplicate the recipe, and food is served along with a displayed photo and profile on the resident who contributed the idea.

Bring variety to the daily menu by swapping chefs with a nearby facility for a week, or ask for resident input on new recipes. Try offering demonstrations of upcoming meals. Monthly theme dinners or omelet and carving boards at Sunday brunch stimulate the senses with the immediacy of cooking smells and increase interaction between residents, meals, and food service staff.

Training staff to be engaged and responsive can also go a long way toward deepening resident engagement and the quality of their experience. Chef presence and circulation during mealtime can provide residents with much-needed attention and staff with valuable feedback about the food.

Improve the quality and variety of food

The ALFA Best of the Best Awards increasingly recognize efforts to improve the overall nutrition and quality of resident diet through research and collaboration. 2014 winner New Perspective Senior Living, which specializes in caring for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease, believes in more purposeful living through better dietary choices.

NPSL spent a year consulting with biochemists and nutritionists at the University of Minnesota and UCLA, to “[increase] the use of Omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidant-rich foods, [decrease] the use of refined carbohydrates and high-fructose corn syrup, and [anticipate] the FDA’s interest in eliminating trans-fatty oils.” Higher nutrition values are taking increased precedence over lowest cost as facilities operators begin to recognize their power to change supplier practices when it comes to providing better-tasting, more nutritious food without inflammatory oils, trans fats, or other unhealthy ingredients.

Increasing nutrient-rich snacks or introducing Kefir-based and protein-enhanced smoothies for digestive health can also deliver high payoffs in overall resident health and well-being, a reminder that bodies at every age benefit from attention to carefully planned meals.

Pay attention to the dining environment

Customer service is just as important in senior living as it is in the hospitality or retail industries. This might be most evident in the planning of dining spaces in senior living facilities, which is increasingly influenced by more mature hospitality sectors.

A recent article in Senior Housing News highlighted two innovators in the field.

Adam Kaplan has a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Cornell, which he now uses in his position as a senior vice president at Chicago-based Senior Lifestyle Corporation. He believes that senior living organizations, “have an obligation to consistently deliver quality care.”

Jeanna Korbas, vice president of design at Milwaukee-based senior living development services firm Supply Aptura, believes that quality is all about the details. Details of design, that is. From her background in interior design and development, she knows that color creates mood, sets a stage, and even directs traffic flow. For communities with high acuity, color can be calming and healing. For therapy and activity, brighter colors create energy. Colorful serving dishes can also help food stand out on a plate and appear more appealing to residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Attention to traffic flow can allow for movement while eating for residents with more wandering behaviors.

Korbas believes paying attention to how our needs change as we age can help us to transfer many valuable principles from the hospitality industry, making them more effective in senior living. Even challenges like limited square footage can be used creatively and beautifully with better attention to design.

In quality of food and thoughtfulness of design, as well as in other aspects of daily operations, senior living as an industry is showing more openness to emerging hospitality trends. Attention to the bottom line is still important, but many are also making choices in favor of health and quality of life to institute forward-thinking, systemic change for the customers under their care.