By Chef Michael Smith
Fortifying our bodies and minds with healthy food and engaging conversation is critical to elevating the daily life of seniors.
So when it comes to ensuring seniors gain the utmost enjoyment of their food, we need to pay close attention to how we respond to each of their five senses.
It’s no surprise that, as we age, our senses change. It’s not just our hearing and sight that become less acute – all five of our senses diminish as we move through time, altering the way we experience the world.
A research project by food services and facilities management company Sodexo and the University of Ottawa called the Five Senses Study was initiated to develop best practices to support seniors.
The study focused on ensuring that the tastes, smells, sights, sounds and touches they experience everyday translate into improved quality of life and well-being.
The issue of food and aging is close to my heart, not only because I’m a chef, but because my dad lives in an assisted living facility. Fortunately, he resides in a residence that takes food, nutrition and fellowship very seriously.
As a result, mealtime is the highlight of his day. For him, the enjoyment is mostly centered around social interaction with residents and staff – the healthy and tasty food on offer is the icing on the cake.
By being intentional and carefully considering how we feed our seniors’ souls, minds and bodies, we can enhance their quality of life.
The Five Senses Study sends a clear message about seniors’ care: simple things make all the difference.
Taste, of course, is the sense we think of most when we talk about food, and while routine and familiar foods can be comforting, introducing new flavours, spices and ingredients keeps things interesting.
Aromas are the quickest way to send our minds back to childhood. For me, whenever I pull a carrot out of the ground on my PEI farm, I think of my grandma. From the smell of the soil, I can taste the flavour of the carrot before I’ve even washed it.
As we age, our sense of smell often diminishes, lessening our ability to taste. At home, putting a pot of water on the stove with cinnamon sticks creates a comforting environment. In retirement facilities, an open kitchen area helps residents better smell food — which can stimulate appetite.
Seniors with low vision often have difficulty distinguishing between similar colours. Long-term care communities can compensate with meals featuring high-contrast colours to help residents see the different items on their plates.
We know there is a direct correlation between a colourful diet and healthy eating. In general terms, the more colourful the plate, the more nutritious it is. A beautifully laid out salad bar, for example, is full of colour, textures and stimulating taste combinations.
Hearing loss is an issue for many of our seniors, and since we want to encourage social conversations along with a healthy meal, we need to consider the sounds around the table. The many benefits of communal eating can be nullified if ambient noise levels are high.
By minimizing background noise from heating and cooling systems, equipment and cleaning services, we make it easier for residents to connect with the conversation.
The fifth sense is, of course, touch. When preparing meals for seniors, paying attention to the texture of food and how it feels in our mouth is important. When the flavour is released slowly with every chew, people are encouraged to eat more.
A good balance of crunchy vegetables, nutty whole grains, silky soups and tender lean proteins makes for a more interesting meal experience.
We also need to think about temperature and texture and pay attention to what our palettes respond to, whether it be sweet, savoury, spicy or sour.
One thing I know with certainty is that who’s at the table is every bit as important as what’s on the table. The act of sharing, passing the bread, connecting with each other as we touch our glasses and celebrate the bounty of food is wonderful for the soul.
– Chef Michael Smith is one of Canada’s best-known chefs and is a passionate advocate for simple, sustainable home cooking and an inspiration for families creating their own healthy food lifestyle.