“Wearing a sport coat and eating with other old people in a big dining room
is not my idea of living.”

This is a comment I heard recently by someone in their late sixties as I was talking with them about retirement communities. It brings up an important point for those considering whether a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) or other senior living community is right for them: senior living dining options.

While the idea of someone else doing the majority of cooking may appeal to many seniors, for others, their mind may immediately go to the bad reputation held by hospital food or the meals prepared in other large institutional settings where tasteless canned/frozen food is slopped onto a divided plate.

But the reality of menu options available today in many CCRCs is often Zagat’s-worthy. The senior living industry, and CCRCs in particular, are recognizing that more and more older adults think like the person quoted above. Because of this change in preference, senior living dining options at many CCRCs and other retirement communities have become much less formal and much more flavorful.

A sophisticated palette

Many of today’s seniors have refined taste buds. Baby Boomers have traveled the world and sampled the cuisines of different countries. And they have eaten in this country’s finest restaurants. Others have enjoyed the invigorating flavors of fresh meats and produce found at farmers’ markets or supermarkets.

Whereas cooking for people in previous generations was simply a necessary chore, many people today actually enjoy the art and science of cooking, with numerous popular TV channels and thousands of cookbooks to prove it. So when it comes time to retire and potentially move to a retirement community with a meal plan, a frozen Salisbury steak with canned peas just isn’t going to cut it.

CCRC residents have demanded fresher foods, more flavorful foods, and the communities have listened. Many CCRCs now have on-staff gourmet chefs, trained in culinary schools and hired away from award-winning restaurants. These gastronomic masters work hand-in-hand with on-staff dietitians, together ensuring meals are delicious yet nutrient-packed and low in sodium and fat.

“Comfort” food and setting

An interesting article in the New York Times highlighted these changing dining and food trends in retirement communities…from sushi bars to organic vegan fare to signature cocktails…and everything in between.

But CCRCs have also recognized the psychological relevance of food–that flavorful, well-prepared food served in a friendly, inviting environment has benefits not only for physical health, but also for mental health.

For lots of people, food and mealtime evokes strong memories associated with family, so many CCRCs try to create a more home-like dining environment for their residents. Gone is the huge banquet table seating 16 or 20 people, replaced with more intimate tables suited to closeness and conversation. And leave your sport coat at home; attire is come-as-you-are comfortable and casual.

Food that looks as good as it tastes

The New York Times article also noted that for seniors in skilled nursing settings who get to the stage of requiring pureed foods, presentation is as important as ever in senior living dining, if not more so. That is why chefs working in these senior facilities have devised ways to mould pureed foods back into their original shapes, even adding an attractive garnish, thus improving the food’s visual appeal and increasing the likelihood of the resident consuming it. Nurses working with memory care residents have noted increased vigor and appetites in people who are consuming these fresher, more visually-appealing foods.

Consider your options

Just as it is wise to read all of the choices when ordering from a restaurant’s menu, seniors should explore the available dining options when they are considering a CCRC. It is highly advisable that you eat in the dining room several times to get a feel for the atmosphere, the menu, the staff, and the service. You may discover that their food is indeed the way to your heart, and the dining experience sells you on the facility. Or it could be the thing that makes you consider other retirement living options.

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