How Aegis, Covenant, Arbor Co. Are Adapting to Senior Living’s Biggest Dining Trends

In 2024, senior living operators are still grappling with many of the same challenges as in recent years. For those on the culinary side, staffing and a transitioning resident demographic remain top stressors.

On the staffing side, senior living workers are still a challenge to recruit and retain this year, even as operators have made progress reducing the use of agency labor. At the same time, the baby boomers are presenting providers a unique opportunity – and a challenge – to change culinary services for a new generation of older adults.

Challenges related to staffing and the need to fine-tune dining “covers just about 95% of what we deal with on a daily basis, for sure,” said Christopher Blair, vice president of dining operations at Covenant Living.


“We’re all struggling against the same things,” he said during a panel discussion at the recent Senior Housing News DISHED event in Chicago. “Challenges in staffing are just critical … and food continues to be a challenge as well, both commodity supply and pricing.”

That said, Covenant and other operators including Aegis Living and The Arbor Company are tackling these and other challenges with a new vision for the future. As they do so, they are creating new experiences for senior living residents and even deploying some “secret weapons” – all in service of creating a new era for dining services.

‘Secret weapon’ for the boomers and other culinary lessons

Senior living operators have spent the last few years looking to create dining programs that will appeal to the incoming baby boomers. Oftentimes, that is taking the form of menus that are fresh and vibrant, with cuisine from across the globe.


But doing so is rarely easy. Senior living residents often are dining at the same venues every day, and thus they might grow tired of certain kinds of fare, according to Ryan King, The Arbor Company’s vice president of culinary services.

“If a resident is eating … three meals a day in the same dining space, it becomes stale,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good of a cook you are, it doesn’t matter how great service is.”

Photo by TBar Productions for WTWH Media

Themed meals – like Italian dinners paired with information about pasta-making or Italian wines –- are one way the company gets beyond stale food habits. The company also is building more interactivity into its dining spaces.

“Pretty much all of our communities at this point have outdoor pizza ovens on wheels – they’re mobile – smokers, and things of that nature so we can do a lot of pop up events,” King said.

Aegis thinks similarly about dining services in its communities, according to Ashleigh Pedersen, vice president of enterprise culinary services.

The company builds multiple branded dining options into all of its properties, ranging from venues that serve dim-sum to spaces slinging traditional Scandinavian food. Like Covenant, Aegis also changes menus seasonally.

The need for fresher fare is also why Blair said Covenant employs a “secret weapon” – a registered dietician, who helps the operator create a five-week menu that is changed each business quarter.

“We try to really monitor what we’re serving: Was it popular last time? Can we look at sales reports of how well something sold? What was the feedback on a particular menu item, and how can we use that to tweak the menu for the upcoming cycles?” Blair said. “[And] are we succeeding on the whole experience? Because it’s not just all about nutrition and residential living, it’s more about that experience.”

By that logic, Pedersen, a registered dietician, could be considered Aegis Living’s secret weapon.

“It’s that delicate balance back and forth of making sure those healthy nutritious offerings are there, but recognizing this is where they’re dining 365 days a year,” Pedersen said on the panel.

Photo by TBar Productions for WTWH Media

Aegis also is creative with the use of front-of-house culinary amenities, including for the assisted living and memory care residents the company houses, she added. For example, Aegis communities often include pizza stations where residents can shape dough discs and apply toppings before their pies are baked inside a hearth.

That also extends into memory care, where residents can help make waffles for their breakfast. And Pedersen said that the company often tasks residents living at different stages of cognitive decline with helping each other.

“It gives them purpose, it makes them feel successful and like they’re contributing to the meal,” she said.

Staffing still a top issue

In senior living, staffing can make or break budgets and foil even well-laid operational plans. That is why it’s still top of mind for King.

In 2024, staffing budgets are growing across the industry. Operators like Arbor often must pay upwards of $20 an hour just to compete for new workers.

“Senior Living isn’t viewed as a sexy industry from a culinary side, so it’s sometimes hard for us to really drive getting that top-tier talent without having to overpay for the positions, which causes another set of issues,” King said during the DISHED panel.

Wages are also a challenge for Covenant, according to Blair. He noted that sometimes the company’s “hands are tied” when it comes to offering top candidates higher wages.

“We can provide great work-life balance and all the other things that would come with any sort of good position,” he said. “But we’ve got to be competitive, too, and that is sometimes challenging under the budgets we all work under.”

Too often, senior living operators “get stuck” on wanting candidates that neatly fit into their job descriptions. But Blair noted that operators should instead look for candidates they can develop over time.

“If we can find someone with really a heart of compassion and mission, and we can train them in the right way, because they’ve got a can-do kind of attitude who wants to learn – that’s huge,” he said.

Senior living operators often talk about the need to create career paths to keep workers on the job and help advance their skills, but doing so is often easier said than done.

But operators don’t necessarily have to be the driving force behind that implementation. Arbor works with Rouxbe, a free online culinary education platform where users can gain American Culinary Federation certification. The company also is just now starting a collaboration with Pineapple Academy, a job training platform for senior living culinary workers.

Companies featured in this article:

, ,