With so much attention on younger generations, it seems that one of our oldest generations of consumers (the Silent Generation born 1928 to 1945) is often left out of the picture. This occurs despite their indelible presence and the impending entry of millions of Baby Boomers to “true” senior citizen status. Eating behaviors and food service have changed substantially for seniors today when compared to how their elders lived—especially when we consider the posh retirement and assisted living facilities that have become so commonplace. The numbers of Americans entering such facilities are not minor: with 77 million boomers reaching retirement age over the next two decades and life expectancy continuing to rise, demand for assisted living services over the next decade will increase. Roughly one million Americans currently live in senior facilities, and that number is expected to double by 2030.
In the context of a changing food culture, elder care facility providers are increasingly looking at food service as a way to differentiate themselves in a competitive market and are branding themselves with health-conscious menus that reflect our overall culinary shift away from processed foods and toward menus consisting of vegetables, whole grains and lean meats.
Since senior residents can spend up to 60 percent of their time in dining and dining-related activities, assisted living communities are focused on elevating the dining experience as a whole and are taking a personalized, flexible approach to designing dining menus and venues. “Dining and food services are the biggest contributors to resident satisfaction in senior living communities, and senior living communities have become increasingly innovative in menu selection and customizing offerings to their residents,” said Sharon Cohen, a spokesperson for Argentum (formerly the Assisted Living Federation of America).
Jim Freeland, director of dining and nutrition at Enlivant, said that while dining programs at assisted living communities are not immune to larger cultural food trends, “our menus are less about trends and more about familiarity. Residents want variety, but they want food that they know,” he said. Since that means different things to different populations, Enlivant food service professionals vary menus geographically and take a resident-centric approach to designing offerings based on resident suggestions. “We develop regional menus based on what our residents tell us they want. In the South, we may serve catfish, while in the Northeast, we’ll serve cod,” he said.
That doesn’t mean that kale and other foods rich in mineral content and fiber aren’t showing up on the menu. These ingredients are increasingly being viewed as important nutritional components for seniors who may have diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. “We’ll introduce new foods in a way residents will eat it, such as adding kale to a stew,” said Freeland. In addition to its dining room, Enlivant offers a bistro concept in many of its communities where residents can grab a snack during the day. As with the popularity of diverse dining formats on college campuses, research shows that multiple dining venues within assisted living facilities is the second most requested feature for such communities. Bistros and delis, which allow for all-day dining or grab-and-go options, are also becoming more widespread.
“We offer snacks such as parfaits, fresh-baked cookies and granola,” said Freeland. Enlivant has added a soft-serve component to some of its bistros. “We’re looking at ways we can offer more variety of beverages and snacks,” he said. Pizzerias, coffee shops and Internet cafes, ice cream parlors, juice and smoothie bars and bars/pubs are showing up in assisted living communities, and indoor/outdoor dining is on the rise.
Assisted living communities are also focusing on signature dining experiences that include elements such as farm-to-table and organic components. Last year, Five Star Quality Care hired celebrity chef Brad Miller to revamp the company’s cuisine and dining program. Miller developed around 40 signature dishes tailored to regional food sources in an effort to ensure quality and fresh ingredients. The celebrity chef also hosted chef challenges and tastings throughout the year at different Five Star locations.
Argentum estimates that one-third of residents in assisted living facilities have neurological conditions like Alzheimer's and other related dementia. Since options can be limited for residents with conditions that necessitate easy-to-handle foods, providers are finding unique solutions to the dining challenges that face these particular residents. Memory care provider Arbor Company teamed up with Grind Dining last year to create the award-winning Dining with Dignity program and raised the bar on food prep and presentation for memory care residents.
Grind Dining developed a culinary technique to grind cooked food and present it in a format that allows it to retain its taste, texture, consistency and attractiveness. “We’re not trying to be fine dining; we’re focused on engaged dining,” said Sarah Gorham, co-founder of Grind Dining. “People generally don’t find pureed foods appetizing and can feel marginalized when they are served foods that are different than what other residents are eating.” Grind Dining’s process transforms traditional spaghetti and meatballs into baked handheld pasta wedges that can be dipped into sauce. The nutritional profile is boosted when meatballs are made from a mixture of meat and vegetables.
Boosting the nutritional value of meals is important for a consumer group that can find recommended calorie intake a challenge due to diminished sense of taste and smell, physical or cognitive maladies or medication side effects that can dull the appetite. When enticing residents to enjoy eating, presentation is a critical component. “We all eat with our eyes, so anything we can do to make the food more attractive is really important to people who may have trouble stimulating an appetite,” said Gorham.
Tweaks like using a crinkle cut on fruits and vegetables and getting the portion size just right can make a huge difference. “When portions are too big, residents can become overwhelmed,” said Freeland. Gorham said environmental cues are especially important to this specific consumer group. “We’re using aromatherapy to stimulate the appetite by releasing sweet food smells in the dining room before meals are served,” she said. “People also find warm hand towels to be an appetite stimulator since it’s comforting and calming.”
Food culture is currently undergoing a renaissance whereby views on cooking and eating are changing to include a newfound sense of curiosity and discovery, and these changes include aging consumers. The shift toward a deeper interest and participation in food culture is not just a youthful trait relegated to Millennials but a true cultural shift. As food is created, food-engaged influencers across generations are increasingly insisting that fresh, less processed food experiences should connect participants more actively. Food is viewed as a cultural product to discover, share, make and trade, and consumers are increasingly saying they want to participate. Clearly, with food service playing such a central role in assisted living communities from both a social and nutritional perspective, the impact of a changing food culture on menus and dining experiences in such venues will only rise in importance in the coming years.
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.