This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living section.
If you have been shopping around for an independent living community lately, you have probably noticed that many are transforming their dining programs.
They are moving away from traditional dining room meal-a-day plans to monthly points systems, so residents can spend their allotment at various dining venues inside the community (think bistros, cafes, coffee shops, formal restaurants). The idea is to allow residents to eat when, where and what they want, which is what the new generation of incoming baby boomers craves.
When considering independent living for yourself or a loved one, be aware that only a certain number of meals or points are included per month in a typical independent living contract. Most don’t cover three meals a day, seven days a week. Eating every meal at an in-house restaurant will likely mean extra charges on your monthly bill that you might not have budgeted for.
What will you do for those “missing meals” once ensconced in your new home? And what can family members do to make sure their loved ones are getting the nutrition they need throughout the day?
Basics are best
Get back to basics, says Lila Cornelia of Dieticians at Home, a Chicago medical nutrition therapy company. She spends her days helping seniors and their families make the right food choices at home.
“It’s a challenge for many seniors, for a variety of reasons. Some don’t want to shop or cook, or can’t. Some have decreased appetites, or medical conditions that require dietary restrictions. Their food needs to pack a punch, without adding harmful ingredients like too much sugar or salt,” Cornelia says.One mistake people make is relying on sweets, baked goods and expensive breakfast cereals, because they are convenient and taste good. “When we get older, we often gradually lose our sense of smell, taste, and interest in food,” she explains.
Cornelia recommends stocking basic, wholesome foods rich in protein and fiber that don’t require dirtying too many pots and pans. For example, foods such as walnuts, almonds, peanut butter, whole milk, butter, whole grain bread, eggs, avocado, oatmeal and yogurt are recommended.Meals don’t have to be big. Breakfast can be a piece of whole grain toast with butter and a hard-boiled egg, or some oatmeal with cinnamon. Lunch can be as simple as a peanut butter sandwich, a glass of milk and a banana. Fruit, crackers, cheese sticks, cottage cheese and nuts are good snack choices. Cornelia advises avoiding fruit juice, which is essentially sugar without the fiber.
Family members can help older adults select packaged foods to keep on hand in their apartment by reading the tiny print on labels. For example, low-salt or no-salt crackers would be best for those with high blood pressure, yogurt without syrupy fruit on the bottom is better for diabetics, whole milk and butter help those who need more calories and protein, and low-fat cheese for those watching their weight.
Montgomery Place in Hyde Park is one community that is transitioning to a points dining system and adding a café.
“Diet for seniors is so important. They need food consumption throughout the day to keep their weight stabilized, and we don’t want to make them feel like they can only eat with us once a day,” says CEO Deborah Hart.
Right now, most residents take care of their own breakfast and lunch.
Like many communities, Montgomery Place does weekly resident shopping trips to grocery stores like Trader Joe’s, where pre-made meals are popular, Hart says.
Many independent living apartments come with fancy kitchens that are a pleasure to spend time in. Bob Werdan, vice president of marketing and public relations of Presbyterian Homes, says the remodeled kitchens at Lake Forest Place and The Moorings are designed to mimic an upscale home. They feature pantries, under-cabinet lighting, granite counter tops, wall ovens, and islands.
Cornelia recommends family members take advantage of this and come over to cook batches of staple foods that can be frozen or refrigerated and reheated for lunch, such as oatmeal, rice and soup.She also introduces her clients to the fun of making shakes in their blender. Rather than spending a lot of money on pre-packaged meal shakes with a lot of unknown ingredients, try oats, milk, half a banana, ice, and a spoonful of peanut butter in a blender. Or substitute frozen or canned fruit for the peanut butter.
“Some people say they don’t get hungry in the morning. But many of them will like a shake,” she says.
Future food choices
In the future, independent living residents can look forward to high-quality, ultra-healthy food being available right there on the premises.
Lifespace communities are aiming for a luxury hotel-style experience in dining service, says Kathleen Haggerty, district manager of culinary services at Thomas Cuisine Management. Her company does the food service for Lifespace. She is currently working with Oak Trace in Downers Grove on its $150-million expansion that will include more casual restaurant-style dining spaces and upgraded food service.
“The younger residents who are entering the communities have different expectations,” she says. “They have traveled the world, have had different cuisines, and are more health conscious. The baby boomers want local food and antibiotic-free meat. We try to introduce organic food and local farmers to showcase that. In fact, we’re working on partnering with farmers to come in and do farmers markets. This gives them better nutrition as well. After all, what is better than a homegrown tomato?” she says. “Not much.”