Senior Living Providers Stretch to Meet High Dining Expectations

Senior living residents increasingly expect a lot from dining programs, including more ambitious menus and a social component to meals. A program launching at hundreds of communities this month provides an example of how some operators are stretching to meet these expectations by trying to create an immersive experience that goes beyond the food on the plate.

Specifically, residents at 350 senior living communities across the country have embarked on a yearlong cultural journey to explore various foods, traditions and customs from around the globe, through a the program introduced by Morrison Community Living. A dining services company serving senior living clients, and a member of Compass Group, Morrison says it developed the program based on feedback from operators and residents.

The theme of Morrison’s fiscal year 2016 dining program, dubbed “A Meal In The Life,” aims to transport residents and their families to the heart of different heritages each month and immerse them in their respective cultures through decorations, music, dining, activities and more.

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Royal Oaks—a continuing care retirement community in Sun City, Arizona—is among the providers aiming to reflect and celebrate the Russian heritage this month, with menu items on days of special events including delicacies such as potato pancakes and borscht. As the year progresses, the offerings will focus on different nations.

Russian cuisine served as part of Morrison's "A Meal In The Life."
Russian cuisine served as part of Morrison’s “A Meal In The Life.”

“It’s about meeting our residents’ needs and wants, but it’s also about making our clients more marketable and on trend,” Regan Medzhibzher, marketing director for Morrison, tells Senior Housing News.

Programming involving food has become an increasingly popular within senior living: More than half of providers that responded to the SHN Industry Dining Survey 2015 reported they provide food-centric activities once a week or more frequently. Another 35.3% of respondents indicated producing dining-related programming monthly.

More than a quarter of residents polled in the SHN Consumer Dining Survey 2015 indicated they expect friends or family to join them for a meal at least once per month at a senior living community. The program, then, helps to meet residents’ desire to eat with loved ones, as the centerpiece of the program is hosting a family-style dinner once per month relating to the theme, Medzhibzher says.

Otherwise, clients are allowed to expand upon programming to offer chef demonstrations, performances and cooking classes. Royal Oaks will be offering tastings prior to the day of the full meal, putting up stations in the most highly trafficked areas of the community, says Director of Dining Services Mark Schroeder. Staff members also will be dressing in the garb of the nations being featured.

It’s all part of creating a more comprehensive program based in the dining experience, Schroeder says.

Taking a bigger picture view, he says that more than the individual activities, providers need to focus on one thing to make the most of this type of programming: communication. At Royal Oaks, that has meant distributing memos campus-wide and holding an informational session, including a Q&A, with residents to explain the initiative.

“I think the biggest thing is communication,” he says. “If the planning works, you get people excited about what you’re doing.”

Resident and staff participation is, of course, another piece of the puzzle. Every community will have a cultural ambassador tasked with engaging with residents, taking pictures and keeping everyone up-to-date on happenings relating to “A Meal In The Life,” and all residents will receive a cookbook where they can store recipe cards from each month’s heritage.

As part of the program, providers are also encouraged to engage with local organizations or consulates within the community, Medzhibzher says.

“Our clients are looking for ways to help tell their story, and this is the perfect way to do that from a food and community standpoint,” she says.

Written by Kourtney Liepelt with reporting by Tim Mullaney

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