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Insitutional Food - This is a rant - I admit it

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Over the past few years I have been visiting my elderly aunt (96 now) who lives in an assisted living facility where all of the residents eat in the dining room. All of the residents are either elderly, have compromised health or both. The food that is served is carbs, fried, protein heavy, salt heavy, low on veggies and just bad. It can't be good for the residents but this seems to be standard for this type of facility as well as for hospitals! What are we doing feeding this stuff to people who need, perhaps more than any of us except little kids, tasty and healthy food?!
I do try to take my aunt out to eat better food when I visit but she is not always able or willing to go out. Taking food to her does not seem to be an option due to distance (me) and storage (her) problems. By the way - this particular facility is surrounded by farms and farm stands.
Okay - I have ranted (inspired by the post on the Jamie Oliver show) but what to do?
Thanks for listening.

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  1. Have you spoken with anyone at the facility? A short discussion, in a little meeting with the chef and the head of the facility, may begin a process of change.
    Especially, as you say, with farms and harvesting going on around it there is no reason why something can't be done.
    It may take some work on your part, but from my experience it's usually what needs to happen. One person can make the difference.

    1. We noticed it when we put Mrs. Sippi's parents in a facility.


      1. A place like this should have a registered dietician/nutritionist on staff. Please speak with him or her and make this person aware of your concerns. I would think any assisted-living facility that is truly concerned with its resident's quality of life would listen to you.

        In addition, perhaps the facility can accomodate your concerns with a special menu for your aunt. Many of these places offer different meals based on their resident's dietary concerns. Maybe a note from your aunt's doctor could get her a meal higher in vegeatbles and what she needs, and lower in carbs and the other foods that concern you.

        7 Replies
        1. re: ttoommyy

          I'm not sure having a nutritionist on staff would solve the problem.

          More often than not nutritious food =/= delicious food.

          Ensure protein drinks come to mind ........

          1. re: ipsedixit

            I fear you're correct in that. I overheard a dietician telling another that an anorexic patient they were both working with had eaten a piece of pie like it was some sort of big triumph. Pie is tasty and fattening, Ensure is easy. Like it was too difficult to come up with prepared real food that had some nutrition to it, especially in a patient that's flat-out guaranteed to be malnourished. Sad.

            1. re: EWSflash

              To be fair, it is an accomplishment...

              1. re: raleighboy

                I agree with you, raleighboy. I once had a neighbor whose young son only enjoyed reading the sports section of the paper. She was very bright and a published author but said she just wante him to read anything and he would eventually broaden his interests. And she was right. Get that anorexic to eat anything and then way later work on what. Give her multivitamins with iron in the meantime :)

              2. re: EWSflash

                No, not quite sad. Reviving taste and the willingness to eat can often involve starting by eating foods that are not nutritionally optimal, but that awaken positive liminal associations that have been dormant. The dieticians may know more than you do from years of experience.

                1. re: EWSflash

                  Ensure is also a lot more tolerable to elderly who have dental and mouth problems. As long as you can still swallow, you can get some calories and vitamins from Ensure.

                  1. re: beachmouse

                    Agreed. But a home my dad was in didn't give him anything else until we caught them at it because he had parkinson's and it "took too much time" to feed him real food. Then they had the nerve to complain that he had diarrhea. hello? Liquid diet?

                    Ensure is a mixed blessing. I'm not knocking it, i'm knocking the lazy cows at the home he was in. There is a small potential for abuse.

            2. We're TRYING to get my MIL into assisted living and have visited two places so far. The food is fabulous. The residents order from menus that include salads, soups, sandwiches, grilled items. One we just visited had probably 20 items on the left side of the menu that remain the same for about three months and daily specials on the right side. After she had a stroke last fall, she was in a skilled nursing facility for about six weeks. Although their menus were MUCH more limited, there were always at least two choices, plus soup and salad. Oh, and the places we looked at recently had MWs, fridge/freezer and kitchenettes in the apartments. One place we had looked at previously didn't have that in the rooms but did have a common areas with those amenities and more.

              None of this helps your aunt's situation but it's not a universal problem IMO. BTW I'm talking about facilities in Reno, NV, so not a big city but not rural either. Good luck.

              1. Fiona, I know what you mean. I had the same feeling when my father-in-law was in the hospital and rehab for a stroke. The hospital had him on a "special" diet for patients recovering from heart attacks and strokes that was full of refined, empty carbs. I didn't see what was so different from it and the regular food they served. I think the only thing different was the sodium level.

                1. I'm sure that some of the problem is regional, some is economic, and some is institutional. My uncle was in an AL facility for years in a region of Pennsylvania where gourmet (or even healthy) food is not at the top of the list. Many of the residents were very set in their ways (including my uncle), and a serious attempt at really healthy food would not be appreciated. It's a cunundrum: feed the residents what they are familiar with, love, and will eat during the last few years of their lives, or try to get them to eat stuff they probably aren't familiar with, don't like and won't eat -- all for the sake of adding an extra 6 months to their lifespan.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: PattiCakes

                    Agree. And in my MIL's case, she's already on meds for cholesterol, BP, etc. At this point in her life, we're more concerned with food as fuel rather than a lifestyle choice. If she wants the damn Claim Jumper's meatloaf dinner, then she should have that rather than not eat.

                  2. assisted living facilites differ from nursing facilities in level of care and regulations, so you can't exactly compare the two, as they must meet different standards. Still, a dietician should be on staff & that would be the place to start. It is a really hard balance to meet dietary needs, appeal to the widest number of residents, and stay within budget for food items. There is no easy answer, but if more people would complain (nicely) and push for change, it would slowly come about.

                    1. I spent a year running a meals on wheels program. Because we were federally-funded, we had to have a nutritionist-designed menu that hit certain nutritional goals and requirements every week. Often, those guidelines clashed with what our clients could comfortably eat (IIRC, there was a frequent clash between the guys with diverculitis and the foods the government guidelines said we had to keep pushing because they were high in magnesium)

                      We paid out contractor about $3.50/meal to produce lunch every Monday-Friday. Contractor apparently had access to some government commodities programs to bring their costs down, but once you account for their overhead and production costs, the cost of food components going into our meals was extremely minimal no matter how you slided it.

                      And it was designed to be bland, especially since our guidelines allowed very minimal salt. A lot of seniors were big tabasco sauce users to try to give the food some spark.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: beachmouse

                        Especially as taste diminishes with age. After my mother had open heart surgery, she was placed in a nursing home for a peiod of time to rehab. One of the side effects of her meds, and a symptom of depression, was that she had no taste for food. If a Bacon Explosion had appealed to her gotten her to eat, I would have given it to her. As it was, we had to go through quite a bit just to get the nursing home to agree to let us give her wine at dinner, even though that was one of the things that sparked her interest.

                      2. I run a LTC home in Ontario Canada - and our food is very very good - even the modified textured food but I have tasted bad food in other places. In Ontario homes are very heavily regulated and inspected but I know in other provinces and in the US not as much. I would sit down with the operator and discuss. I take all concerns very seriously - I also taste the food on a regular basis to ensure it is top notch. It is hard to make everyone happy with different likes and dislikes but that is different than food quality.

                        1. It doesn't have to be awful bland or crappy food all the time. It depends on who is running the place and who is speaking up. I used to volunteer at an assisted living residence. The place was set up kind of like a hotel, in that every resident had a suite and there were several common rooms. There was a snack bar in the main 'hanging out' room that was set up like a kitchen. The fridge held platters of freshly made mini sandwiches and small bottles of water, fruit juice, and milk. Bowls on the counter held apples, pears, oranges, bananas and plums. Homemade cookies were arranged in cake domes on the counters.

                          Residents had two menu options for lunches and dinners. One was always a bit more gourmet and the other homier. One night we were there, dinner was lamb chops/string beans with garlic/roasted potatoes or meatloaf/spinach/mashed potatoes. There was always a soup choice that could be a small meal if one wasn't hungry. No reason to have bland mass produced food. The food was served to the residents by waiters, who got to know the residents and their preferences.

                          The one place that junk food was readily available was the 'club shop.' Everything available was in smaller sizes- cans of sods, small bags of chips, single wrapped cookies and pastries.

                          1. My mom is in assisted care, and I agree the food is subpar. It was actually worse in the first place we had her in. We take her out when we can, and frankly she snacks so much in her room I don't know if it matters about the dining room. She has dementia, and I don't know if she would eat really good food. When we took her to a nice place several years ago she wouldn't eat anything, because I think she didn't recognize anything and she can't choose anything from the menu reliably. But when we took her to another place with a buffet featuring fried chicken, she jumped up and filled her plate.

                            I think most places serve cheap food. I don't know what to do about it. I don't think my mom cares.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: sueatmo

                              I can't speak for most places but the places we've checked out DO have all sorts of food and choices of food. But as I mentioned above, there's a point in time (my MIL is almost 90) where having them eat anything is better than not eating. They need "fuel" to keep the motor running.