Dished: Hot New Trends in Memory Care Dining

(Thrive Dining photo courtesy of Watermark Retirement Communities)

The way some memory care programs feed their residents is rapidly changing.

At many senior living communities, the standard mealtime practice for seniors with dementia is for caregivers to feed them things like chicken nuggets, fish sticks, french fries and purees. Those foods are easily identifiable and don’t require utensils to handle or eat, which makes them ideal for people with memory loss, the conventional wisdom goes. But chicken nuggets and french fries lack variety, nutritional value and flavor, and unintended weight loss and vitamin deficiencies are common industry problems.

But some big memory care providers like Watermark Retirement Communities, MorningStar Senior Living and Silverado are trying to change that. Those companies are spending a good deal of time and money on finding new ways to keep their residents with dementia and other cognitive impairments full and happy without serving them overly processed meals.

From finger foods to family-style dining, here are a few hot new dining trends that are popping up in memory care programs across the country.

Bite-sized balance

One of the largest pushes to overhaul memory care dining is happening at Watermark Retirement Communities. For months, the Tucson, Arizona-based company has worked to roll out Thrive Dining across its 39 communities. Thrive Dining is a food program based on Grind Dining, is a culinary program that made waves when it was debuted by two former food service professionals in 2014.

Turkey cutlet with Spanish rice / photo courtesy of Watermark Retirement Communities

The idea is simple: turn regular Watermark meals into one- and two-bite hors d’oeuvres that can be eaten by hand and on the go.

“The Thrive Dining meal is a complete, balanced meal in a finger-food form,” Rob Bobbitt, Watermark’s national director of dining services, told Senior Housing News.

A typical Thrive menu might include things like breakfast casserole with syrup and fresh fruit, chef salad bites with dipping sauce, or beef wellington turnovers with truffle mashed potatoes and vegetables julienne. Anything—even foods that would normally be tricky for memory care residents such as spaghetti and meatballs or beef brisket—can be turned into a Thrive menu item.

Watermark’s chefs start by grinding or chopping up regular dinner menu items in carefully measured proportions. They then spoon the ground-up food into rice paper wrappers, crepe shells or mini pastry cups and plate them with colorful vegetables or other edible garnishes.

Though the end result may resemble an appetizer platter, it still contains the flavor and nutritional value of a normal Watermark meal.

“The beauty of this program is we’re taking our fresh food that we’re providing daily [in other parts of the community] and giving access to our memory care residents,” Bobbitt says.

And the program isn’t limited to people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Seniors with Parkinson’s disease, who have had strokes or suffer from injuries also can benefit from Thrive Dining, Bobbitt says.

Watermark aims to have the program in all of its communities by the end of the year.

Photo courtesy of MorningStar

Denver-based MorningStar, which runs 20 communities in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and Oregon, also serves regular menu items in easy-to-eat finger food form. Like Watermark, MorningStar’s chefs take regular ingredients and encapsulate them in puff pastries, egg roll wrappers and turnovers.

Another preparation technique MorningStar utilizes involves soft, pureed food mixed and molded to resemble its pre-blended form. For instance, a chef might serve something that looks like blueberry french toast, but is actually a french toast puree that’s been shaped and molded with binding agents.

“It’s all about making it less confusing for the resident,” Michael DeGiovanni, vice president of culinary operations at MorningStar tells SHN.

Mealtime can help memory

One thing many seniors with cognitive impairments don’t get to partake in often are family-style meals, where warm food and conversation are shared among loved ones. That’s why MorningStar is working to debut a new family-style, memory care-focused dining program.

Photo courtesy of MorningStar Senior Living

Roughly once every other week, participating MorningStar communities invite memory care residents and their families to a sit-down breakfast, lunch or dinner with a tablecloth, platters of food and multiple entree, side dish and drink options.

The general idea is to get residents back into a familiar environment that might help them rekindle old memories, DeGiovanni explains.

“Folks who have brain diseases… may not remember something that happened this morning, but something that happened 20 years ago might be fresh on their mind,” he says. “If they have family members around them and they start talking about how they used to have Sunday dinner, those memories start coming back.”

Watermark also takes extra steps to make sure its memory care residents are active during mealtime. The operator starts all of its meals with warm towels scented with lemon, lime or herbal aromas. Though the warm, slightly damp towels help clean residents’ fingers, they also get them thinking about food.

“[The towels] help engage the resident’s sense of touch and smell,” Bobbitt says. “That really helps set the stage for a better dining experience for our residents.”

Then, caregivers offer residents a scoop of citrus sorbet that’s meant to reinforce the idea that it’s time to eat.

“There’s science behind this that eating a citrus-based sorbet will help activiate the appetite and the salivary glands,” he adds. “That’s your body’s cue to eating.”

Nutrition and normalization 

Photo courtesy of Silverado

Irvine, California-based Silverado, which runs 36 memory care communities in seven states, recently revised its menu to more closely resemble something called the “MIND Diet.”

The diet, which includes nutritious foods like green leafy vegetables, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry and olive oil, may help reduce the risk of dementia and increase overall health and wellness. Though it’s still unclear if the diet can benefit people who already have Alzheimer’s or other kinds of dementia, it was associated with slower cognitive decline in a 2015 study published in the academic journal “Alzheimer’s and Dementia.”

The goal of the menu is to prolong residents’ cognitive abilities, Nick Giampietro, Silverado’s vice president of culinary services, tells SHN.

Furthermore, Silverado’s chefs take extra care to prepare those beneficial foods in a healthful way.

“A lot of our items are baked in the oven,” Giampietro says. “Our meats are raw and then we prepare them… they’re not frozen, prepared or full of sodium.”

Unlike MorningStar and Watermark, though, Silverado doesn’t serve its food in bite-sized or portable portions. And Silverado’s staffers set tables with nice ceramic plates, glassware, flatware, linen cloths and flowers.

“We really feel it’s about that normalization process of giving them the tools and utensils that they grew up with and they used in their life,” Giampietro says. “Even though a resident has a memory-impairing disease, we want to treat them the same as anybody else.”

Interested in the latest dining trends in senior living? Senior Housing News is partnering with top operators and chefs to create the future of dining. Find out more at our upcoming Dished event.

Written by Tim Regan

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