The senior care foodservice segment is undergoing a transformation as more upscale restaurants continue to replace institutionalized dining halls. As a result, today’s residents have more dining options, including snack bars, bistros, pubs, hotel-like room service and catering.
Living communities that cater to seniors continue to thrive, as this segment of the U.S. population keeps growing. In fact, retail foodservice-related sales at senior living facilities totaled more than $5 billion in 2010, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based foodservice market research firm.
Unlike traditional nursing homes, assisted living facilities typically provide varying levels of care for residents. Most provide areas to accommodate seniors with debilitating health issues who require daily assistance and the medical support of a 24/7 nursing staff. These communities also provide individual residences for those who are completely self-sufficient and for seniors who may need only occasional assistance or monitoring.
“There is an emphasis on deinstitutionalizing long-term care and taking the focus off of medical care, which is just one component of a person’s overall care,” says Mary Cooley, M.A., R.D., L.D.N., director of dining services at Pennswood Village, a senior living operation in Newtown, Pa. This community includes apartments for residents who can live independently and facilities for those needing a higher level of care.
Of Pennswood Village’s 450 residents, 360 live in apartments. “In this segment, we tend to see support of a continuum of care,” Cooley says. “The goal is to have residents be independent as long as possible.”
Increasing the amount of interaction with residents from all care types represents an emerging point of emphasis for senior care foodservice operators. As a result, senior care facilities are more likely to conduct chef demos to engage residents in meal preparation, organize picnics, offer taste testing and involve seniors in new product selection. “We try to engage our residents as much as possible,” Cooley says. “For instance, if we are changing coffee vendors, we will involve them in a blind taste test. This gets them involved in the selection. It’s important to both support and engage residents to keep them actively involved.”
As more residents focus on their health, senior care foodservice operations are taking more of a wellness approach. “The GI Generation (born between 1901 and 1924), the first residents in these communities, are happy with comfort foods and not demanding in terms of food preferences,” Cooley says. “The Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1942, is better educated and more affluent. These seniors expect flexibility, want to be involved in the decision making and convey their preferences.”
To address these residents’ needs, Pennswood regularly conducts nutrition sessions. Its menu focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables as well as meals seasoned with fresh herbs.
From an equipment standpoint, there has been a de-emphasis on fried foods and a growing focus on a la minute meals. Flexibility is also key since, unlike traditional nursing home residents, senior living dwellers typically prepare some meals in their own kitchens.
Pennswood conducted a survey two years ago and found that 42 percent of its residents still cooked on their own in their apartments. “When these senior care communities were first created, the meal plans and dining options weren’t as flexible,” Cooley says. “Now, residents can vary their participation. With more dining options and a higher-quality menu, it’s a very different environment.”
As the aging of America continues, senior care foodservice is expected to further evolve to meet the needs of the growing number of residents.