Imagine a cold, neon-lit food hall and the noise of chairs scraping loudly on the floor, the echo of clunky knives and forks and drab-looking slop served in plastic containers.
Contrast this with a warmly lit dining room with soft, melodic music in the background, the smell of cooking wafting from the kitchen, soft carpet underfoot and a colourful, tasty-looking smorgasbord of food options.
Engaging people’s five senses with pleasant stimuli can be very pleasurable and even therapeutic. It can also make a huge difference to the aged care dining experience.
Why is this important? First and foremost, because one in three older adults are silently suffering from malnutrition.
Improving the flavour – and nutrition content – of food served to older adults is an obvious imperative. Enhancing the sensory experience at mealtimes can further improve appetite and people’s desire to prolong the meal experience.
As celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal wrote, “We eat with our eyes, ears, nose, memory, imagination and our gut.”
Traditional aged care dining
Even when it comes to the food itself, aged care gets a very bad report card.
For instance, an analysis of unsolicited aged care correspondence just four years ago, after Maggie Beer launched her foundation to improve the situation, identified some unappetising themes around food provision.
The food itself was perceived as poor quality, and it caused distress and feelings of powerlessness for staff and families. Some constraints to serving better meals included restrictive food safety rules, inadequate budgets, poor employee attitudes and under-skilled kitchen staff.
An overwhelming need to address these problems and change food culture emerged.
A more recent Four Corners report exposed similar issues, including examples of poor quality food and people who couldn’t feed themselves being left hungry.
Australia’s interim report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety is due by the end of October and the final report on 30 April 2020. But with so many problems to address, its terms of reference don’t even address mediocre food and dining.
This hasn’t stopped some organisations from forging ahead.
The Lantern Project, for instance, was “borne of the need to improve the quality of life of older adults through the joy of food”.
A national collaboration that hosts monthly meetings on the Gold Coast and webinars, it has 500 members from aged care across Australia.
Some of their initiatives include an app to capture stories that identify food service priorities, a video series, “Little Things”, to showcase innovations in food service and “The Lantern Approach”, a set of guidelines to improve aged care dining.
They have published 11 papers, and three working groups are exploring “dining experience”, “legal and quality food issues” and “food activities connecting generations”.
The Maggie Beer Foundation, of course, is another organisation working hard to make a difference, and improve the experience as well as the food.
Innovations don’t have to be as fancy as Michelin-starred chef Paco Roncero’s restaurant in Ibiza that projects emotive 360-degree images around the room and uses scent diffusers and a speaker system to supplement its elaborate 20-course meals.
However, some interesting research can offer insights into making small adjustments. For instance, food from a round plate tastes “sweeter” than from a pointy plate, which can make it taste more bitter.
Another study found that high-contrast blue plates and glasses increased food consumption by 25% and liquid intake by 84%. Red plates, on the other hand, are off-putting.
Ultimately, though, a warm, friendly environment with pleasant, familiar sights, smells and sounds served with tasty, nutritious food is enough to considerably improve people’s health and quality of life into old age.
Dining & dysphagia
Swallowing is a deceptively complex act that people do without thinking nearly a thousand times a day – not just when eating and drinking, but also during every waking minute. With ageing, many people develop varying degrees of difficulty swallowing. Not only does this interfere with enjoying foods and drinks, but it has a host of other ramifications for health and wellbeing.
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