Meals are so important to seniors – something that they very much look forward to. They provide an important psychosocial function as well as a sense of olfactory and taste pleasure. Mealtime is social time. For many seniors, it may be the only time they get human contact in their day.
I have been down in California this week visiting my mom who lives in a senior living community. At times I feel like I am at a spa! Senior living communities have been redesigned over the years and are quite luxurious. Our daily meals together have provided a nice opportunity to observe senior eating behaviors and the importance meals represent as we age.
The first thing that struck me about the meals served was portion size. Portions are much smaller than what you or I would get if we were eating out at a restaurant. The protein portion is no more than 8 ounces (if even that), and a fruit and vegetable is included at each meal. If you were to translate this into the Plate Method of meal planning, it would be right on. Half of the plate would be a fruit or vegetable, ¼ of the plate would be a protein source and ¼ would be a carbohydrate. Seniors are very comfortable with this method because it reflects a way of eating that they used for years. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the way we used to eat and how we can remedy this disconnect. Most senior living communities will gladly accommodate special diets and taste preferences.
The second thing, and equally as important as portion size and nutrients, is the social environment. Mealtime is not rushed and should provide a pleasant and socially stimulating atmosphere. Most meals last an hour if not longer and provide a chance to catch up with friends.
As I reflect on what seems to be stepping back 50 years, I see the good and of course as a dietitian I can’t help but see the room for improvement. The good is that portion size is right on, vegetables and fruits are emphasized (good for antioxidants), there is always fish on the menu (which is a great brain food) and milk is offered as a beverage. The room for improvement is that bread and rice is still white, no whole grains. The chef does not use olive oil as a substitute for butter and stevia (sugar substitute) is nowhere to be found. Salad still means iceberg lettuce rather than green leaf, romaine and butter varieties – and where are the tomatoes, broccoli, cranberries, avocado, goat cheese and walnuts (another brain food)?
If you are looking for a senior living community for yourself or a loved one, I recommend that you pay close attention to the dining area and meal. Ask questions and make sure this is the right fit for one of the most important daily activities in the lives of seniors.