Senior Living’s Pivot to Wellness Reshapes Dining Programs

Senior living operations are shifting toward wellness in a big way, and this is reshaping their culinary offerings for residents. To assemble wellness-focused dining programs, providers are taking cues from outside the industry, such as the rising popularity of anti-inflammatory diets and juice bars, but adapting these trends for the senior living demographic.

Still, it’s not always easy. For many older adults in senior housing healthy eating is the opposite of good eating. To combat that notion and help make sure residents are eating well, companies such as Blake Management Group (BMG) and The Wolff Company are beefing up their dining programs with wellness in mind. Wolff is working with celebrity chef Beau MacMillan and also recently named Niki Leondakis to lead operations of the Revel brand. Leondakis brings a wealth of experience to drive wellness-focused operations, having previously been CEO of Equinox Fitness Clubs and president of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants.

More generally, wellness is a big movement across all aspects of senior living, from fitness-forward activities programs to new ways residents can express their spirituality such as yoga or meditation. That’s likely because wellness offerings help boost resident satisfaction, improve quality of life and can attract a younger demographic of older adults. This, in turn, may lead to longer lengths of stay, and ultimately, a healthier bottom line for providers.

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Many companies have taken a big step toward wellness in recent months. Benchmark, one of the largest senior living providers in the U.S. Northeast, recently announced it’s launching a wellness management division aimed at its urban communities. And brands from outside of the industry have taken notice and are looking to cash in on the trend’s popularity, too. For example, Canyon Ranch, a company renowned for its wellness-focused resorts and programs, in February announced it plans to enter the senior living industry.

‘Clean, wholesome ingredients’  

Plant-based, “anti-inflammatory” diets have gained prominence in recent years, thanks in no small part to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and other celebrity athletes who endorse the health and wellness benefits. As more people of all ages embrace this type of eating, senior living dining is also reflecting this trend, seeing that it supports the nutrition-related goals of wellness.

Last October, senior living dining and services giant Sodexo launched an effort aimed at bringing more plant-based menus to its various clients’ across the country, including in some of its senior living communities. Some senior living providers are serving more vegetarian and vegan options in anticipation of the baby boomer  generation’s more varied preferences.

Last year, Wolff linked up with Beau MacMillan, a longtime restaurateur and chef who has appeared on shows like “Iron Chef America” and as a celebrity contestant on “Guy’s Grocery Games.” MacMillan is the executive chef designing the Revel culinary experience across multiple venues in each community, while Sodexo is managing operational aspects of dining.

“To me, wellness in senior living dining truly starts with the quality of the food itself,” MacMillan told Senior Housing News. “These guests, we really want to care for them. And that means their health.”

In 2012, MacMillan co-authored a book called the “Alzheimer’s Prevention Cookbook: 100 Recipes to Boost Brain Health.” He borrowed many of the same concepts found in that book while developing Wolff’s first senior living menus.

“These recipes that I started with were very protein- and plant-based driven, using a lot of ingredients that have natural antioxidants that really reduce inflammation in your body,” MacMillan said. “Really simple, clean, wholesome ingredients.”

Many of the recipes MacMillan comes up with for Wolff are spins on American comfort classics, such as pot pies, beef wellington and braised chicken, but with a focus on local, fresh, from-scratch ingredients. The recipes are largely standardized in Sodexo’s test kitchens, where they can be measured by standards of caloric content, ingredients and cost.

A multi-sensory experience

BMG, a hospitality-focused senior living operator that currently acts as a third-party manager for 22 senior living communities in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, also places a heavy emphasis on wellness in its dining program. That means serving up fresh ingredients prepared in a way that appeals to residents in many ways, according to Darin Leonardson, the company’s vice president of culinary operations.

“Am I not sick? Am I smiling? Do I feel good about myself? That’s what clinical wellness means,” Leonardson said. “If I can touch all five of your senses through food, that is helping with your overall wellness.”

Leonardson, a former executive chef at Google who joined BMG last September, has worked his way through the senior living industry over the years. He was previously a vice president with Mainstreet’s Rapid Recovery Centers, where he focused on the healing aspects of food. Prior to that, he was the director of hospitality at Golden Living, a role that had him overseeing menus at 300 properties.

BMG’s chefs prepare foods with no salt during the cooking process, instead opting to add salt when serving the food. That way, residents consume far less than if chefs sprinkled it on early and often, Leonardson said.

The provider also serves healthier food with a more appetizing spin — but it’s not always an easy sell. While there is a general expectation that baby boomers will be drawn to wellness-focused dining, most senior living residents today are still more accustomed to pot roast than acai bowls.

“What I’ve learned over time is that, even though I want to feed them healthy nutrition, seniors don’t always want to eat healthy,” Leonardson explained.

To defeat the preconceived notion that healthy food is boring and bland, BMG’s chefs put on cooking demonstrations and describe foods in a way that makes residents more excited about eating it.

“If you call something healthy on the menu, no one will order it,” Leonardson said. “Some of our competitors might [describe a dish as] salmon, potatoes and vegetables, but I’m going to say it’s a lemon dill poached wild salmon with a nonfat greek goddess yogurt and a fresh seasonal vegetable medley.”

Another approach that gets older adults eating healthier is to offer them nutritious food in a new inventive way. For example, BMG is rolling out a new program with fresh juice shots for residents.

“You’re starting to see all these freshly squeezed juice places [in the consumer world], so we’ve been piloting different freshly squeezed juices that we make in the back of the kitchen,” Leonardson said. “Providing these juice shots is a great way to add nutrition to someone who might otherwise have had a burger today.”

Feeling good

Sodexo also works with Seabury, a 438-unit “type A” life plan community in Bloomfield, Connecticut. Sodexo manages Seabury’s culinary program, which includes a bevy of healthy and sustainable choices for residents.

At Seabury, wellness is defined as meeting individuals’ goals and objectives, be that fitness, health or simply feeling good. Residents there can look up dishes’ nutritional information and ingredients or make special dietary requests, such as requesting a meat-free entree or a double portion of protein in lieu of carbohydrates.

“We meet each resident in where their journey might be,” Pegeen Sullivan, Seabury’s vice president of community life, told Senior Housing News. “There’s a lot of personalization we do so that people can feel good about the choices they’re making.”

Seabury

Like BMG, Seabury limits the amount of sodium in its dishes. In fact, the community keeps it under lock and key, opting instead for fresh herbs and spices for seasoning. Seabury also makes all of its dishes with gluten-free preferences in mind.

The life plan community is also planning to launch in the spring a new program dubbed “Mindful with Marla and Matt” aimed at more closely integrating its fitness and dining programs.

“Marla [Baroncini Alibrio] is our dietician, and Matt [McGowan] is our director of fitness,” Sullivan said. “So, we’re going to be offering some fun educational and nutritional fitness-based programming, but wrapping in the food component with it.”

For Seabury, wellness-focused dining has paid off. But it’s less about getting a competitive advantage and more about staying relevant, especially as the baby boomer generation looms over the industry.

“Food trends are fast and furious, and you have to be nimble in order to stay up with them,” Sullivan said. “And the new people who are coming to your organization expect it.”

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