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To senior living and long-term healthcare communities, offering a quality dining program to residents is not as straightforward as in the old days.
A growing demand for restaurant-inspired dining experiences, regulations, skilled talent shortages and pressures to do more with less are prompting forward-looking operators to outsource dining management to dining service providers that specialize in not-for-profit communities.
Leading the trend is the growing number of senior resident communities who outsource kitchen management services to:
In preparing to welcome the 2.5 million baby boomers who turned 70 last year — many senior living and healthcare communities have done away with utilitarian buffet lines and bland, mass-produced foods. In their place are stylish dining spaces with properly-set tables and a variety of fresh, tasteful food choices — often on a par with you’d find at an upscale restaurant.
Senior living operators are catching on: To attract these more active seniors, they need to emulate the diverse culinary experiences boomers see as a vital part of a fulfilling lifestyle.
To these active, food-savvy seniors, meals are not just for basic sustenance. They’re an amenity — a means to socialize and gain exposure to new flavors and cooking techniques.
This is especially true in congregate living food service environments, where there’s just one chance a day for residents to enjoy a nutritious, satisfying meal together in a shared dining space.
The connection between food and personal satisfaction goes even deeper — not just for seniors but for people of all ages dealing with various health and cognitive challenges.
To adults adjusting to communal living, meals are also about maintaining a sense of independence. That means having choices — choices that senior housing and long-term care operators are finding more difficult to provide with self-managed dining service programs.
The pressure to shift to more resident-centered food service models isn’t just coming from customers. A 2016 Denver Post article reported that the federal government has proposed regulations requiring nursing home food service programs to offer menus catering to religious, cultural and ethnic preferences. Per the Denver Post, the proposed regulations would also give nursing home residents the “right to make personal dietary choices.”
It’s all about empowering residents to make diet choices that are both healthy and satisfying. The reason: Nutritious food that looks and tastes good is more likely to be eaten, and makes sticking to a special diet easier.
Bridging the gap between healthy food and appealing food is equally vital in acute, healthcare dining services environments like homes for dementia patients and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers.
In food services for dementia patients; for example, nutrition goes hand in hand with quality of life. But a decline in a person’s cognitive abilities often comes with a loss in appetite — brought on by difficulties using utensils, overwhelming food decisions and other factors.
The Alzheimer’s Association warns that poor nutrition can exacerbate symptoms or weight loss; and recommends keeping mealtime as uncomplicated as possible to encourage healthy eating.
Helping patients adopt healthier appetites is also critical in meal services for rehabilitation, where poor nutrition can hinder the brain’s ability to recover from addiction.
While most living senior and healthcare communities see the value of resident-centered food service, facilities with self-operated kitchen management models — more than half — find it easier said than done.
Many lack the in-house regulatory and culinary expertise to plan and document a compliant, comprehensive resident-centered food service offering. A shortage of qualified hourly and management-savvy employees compounds the challenge.
With regulations from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) now mandating informed choice in long-term care communities, self-operating holdouts will eventually warm up to outsourcing kitchen management to a dining management provider with specialized experience serving not-for-profit communities.
Not all senior living and healthcare food service companies are equal. When evaluating potential partners, you should first and foremost look for a food service for nonprofits company that’s a good cultural fit with your community.
That means focusing your search on companies that embrace a hospitality-driven approach to food management and understand the connection between resident satisfaction and the ability to fill beds.
Also, keep in mind that food program needs vary for different resident populations. Here are some factors to consider, based on the unique priorities of your long-term care community.
Replicating high-end, restaurant-quality experiences is the focus in these communities, where residents tend to be more affluent, well-traveled, knowledgeable about global and regional food trends, and aware of local sourcing practices. Active socially and capable of managing day-to-day tasks, these seniors can dine where they want.
When looking at food services for nonprofit companies, inquire about their hiring practices and approach to menu development. Do they recruit chefs from the restaurant and hospitality sector? How much creative license are chefs given with cooking and presentation techniques? What relationships have they forged with local growers and specialty food providers?
Tour independent living communities like yours where the food service vendor has a presence. This will give you a feel for the competence and professionalism of the hospitality staff. If providing alternative dining options is a goal, make sure the vendor has the resources, business partnerships and expertise to support it.
These seniors are often just as worldly and food-savvy as their peers in independent living; however, they often have more dietary restrictions and may need some assistance with eating. Most rely on transportation provided by the community or family members to travel outside the assisted living home — making meals a social highlight.
Thus, assisted living food service can be labor intense. Look for a provider that can deliver a high degree of choice and quality; but with the support to cater to seniors who may need one-on-one assistance or special menu accommodations.
Maintaining dignity is a primary concern, so ongoing training should be a core piece of your provider’s assisted living food service strategy.
Community-building is also an emphasis. Ask potential providers for samples of event calendars and menus for themed and special occasion meals.
In skilled nursing communities, the impact of age and medication on food taste is more pronounced. When it suppresses appetites, malnutrition can become a problem.
That’s why it’s important to partner with a food management provider that has the flexibility and culinary skill to cater to special diets — low sodium, low calorie, heart heathy, etc. — without sacrificing food quality and flavor.
Like in assisted living food service environments, preserving dignity and food autonomy is a focus. Having a well-trained hospitality staff is vital; as is knowledge of food choice and other regulations.
Delivering food service to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients requires specialized nutrition expertise. Experience preparing meals for patients with dysphagia is a must; so is having a hospitality staff trained to ensure patients’ nutritional needs are met in a dignified manner.
Your dementia food services provider should also have the flexibility to adjust menus based on patients’ changing cognitive conditions. Satisfying individual preferences is closely linked to quality of life; but a resident’s favorite meal one day may not be the next.
Confusion, distractions and problems using serving ware can depress a resident’s interest in food. A quality provider will know how to address these challenges with skill and compassion.
This means not overwhelming residents with too many choices, and providing simple-to-use utensils and serving pieces. It also means creating a soothing environment in neighborhood-style dining rooms filled with the warm aromas of flavored coffees and fresh baked breads, cookies and muffins.
Lack of appetite is common among rehabilitation residents who put overcoming their addition above developing healthy eating habits. Look for a rehabilitation food services provider with the adaptability to change menus as recovery progresses. Compassion and responsiveness are important qualities to have in a hospitality staff. Your provider needs to go above and beyond to know each resident by name.
Achieving balance between food quality and food budget is more of a concern in congregate living environments, where food costs have a direct impact on residents’ rent. With only one meal served per day, nutritional quality and resident satisfaction are top concerns. So is showing respect for residents’ time and freedom to come and go as they please; by regularly alternating the order in which tables are served, for example.
Providing a quality food services program to senior and long-term care communities in the era of informed choice may be complex; but partnering with an experienced food management company makes it a lot simpler. Contact Glendale Senior Dining to learn more.