Learn how to put the proper components in place to pave the way to an enhanced dining experience.

By Susan Saldibar

When we think of senior living dining, especially for residents with cognitive functional challenges, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, the discussion often gravitates to topics such as assistive eating equipment versus finger foods.

While those are important care components, Mi-En Thoeng, MA, RD, CDP, Regional Nutrition Manager for Sodexo Seniors West, a Senior Housing Forum partner, believes that dining is more than ‘food on the plate’. It is a social experience, as well as a way to improve the nutritional status and well-being of the residents. So the question is how to put the proper components in place to pave the way to an enhanced dining experience. Mi-En points to three factors that are used at Sodexo communities to achieve that.

  1. Connectedness/Relationships: This is about breaking past old boundaries and creating more authentic relationships between caregivers — what Sodexo terms “care partners” — and the residents themselves. “As an example, we seat residents with similar cognitive functional levels together at a table so they are able to chat and socialize with each other,” says Mi-En. “This works for them as they are connecting together in their own way and it helps build a positive experience.”

    Another part of “connectedness” is having the care partners sit and actually eat with the residents. Seeing those around them eating and relaxing conveys a sense of normalcy that is much more conducive to a positive experience.

  1. Real-world familiarity: A dining room should look and feel like a dining room, not a therapy room or a multi-purpose room. That means using real furniture that one would expect to see in a dining area; possibly a wooden hutch, tables with real fabric cloths or placemats, and artwork upon the walls that depicts familiar scenes, which might stir a memory or two among residents.

    For example: Sodexo’s partner — Rosewood Retirement Community in Bakersfield, California — had a local artist cover the walls of their Grove Dining Room with a brightly colored mural of Kern County, complete with all the special attractions, landmarks and buildings labeled. Nicole Phillips, Grove Coordinator at Rosewood Community explains: “It has helped jog memories of past experiences for residents and has proven to be a great conversation starter for everyone entering the dining room.”

  1. Focus on abilities, not limitations: Understanding their physical/cognitive challenges will help to work on residents’ abilities more. For example, we recognize that some residents eat better when served smaller portions, course by course.

    As expected, there will be dining challenges. For example, a resident may make comments such as, “This food is poisoned” or “I want my mother’s cooking”. This is where, according to Mi-En, training is so important. The care partner should be well equipped with tactics that gently steer the conversation towards a more positive result. Sensitive care training to manage these dining challenges will help them do that.

Fresh tactics and programs bring with them more successful dining experiences. “We are proud to have partnered with Nicole Phillips, Grove Coordinator at Rosewood, to implement a new playbook that basically pushes aside old stereotypes and outdated methods and replaces them with a fresh approach that restores dining to the social experience it should be, taking into consideration the individuality of each resident,” says Mi-En.

And the results speak for themselves. “Rosewood has reported that their residents are gaining weight, versus losing weight, and using more real food instead of supplements.” says Mi-En. “This helps to improve residents’ overall nutritional status and well-being.” By all accounts, this spells success.

For more information on how Sodexo is working to change the dining experience for senior care residents, visit their website at www.sodexo.com.  You can learn more about the collaborative work between Sodexo and Leading Age regarding the report here: Dining Practices for Residents with Dementia.