Look Up…. A Series on Innovation for the Resident
After more than 20 years owning, operating and managing Independent Living, Assisted Living and Memory Care Communities, we have done our best to hold innovation as a top priority within our company. Until recently, innovation has been mostly lip service in our industry, as operators’ ability to be creative has been impacted by the amount of resources required by the daily demand of working in senior living management.
Walking through the Leading Age Conference Trade Show recently, it struck me that our industry is changing, and changing quickly. It is my belief that a number of factors are contributing to the current pace of innovation, not the least of which is the explosion of technology in the business support functions actually tailored to the business. The daily workload surrounding functions such as staffing, billing, accounting and human resources are now being served by technology providers, allowing operators the ability to raise their heads from the weeds and begin to ‘look up.’ This series of business briefs entitled ‘Look Up,’ is intended to highlight ways that the industry is changing, allowing operators to direct time and attention back towards their residents and staff, looking at these groups through the lens of innovation, creativity and advocacy.
The ‘Look Up’ series is not intended to highlight specific companies or service providers, but areas of focus in order to be a resource and account of current and upcoming trends. It is also intended to layout ways that our communities can focus on those things that can really drive change for the seniors we serve. This series is also not intended to directly spotlight companies that can be found on Senior GuidePost, yet many of the trends discussed are pioneered by these companies, and when appropriate, recognition is provided to these change agents.
Volume 2 – Dietary & Food Service Innovation
It is virtually impossible to overstate the importance of the dietary department in a senior living community. Because of this importance, generally speaking, when there are complaints in a community, a vast majority are related to food service. If you are in the industry, this is not news to you, as you have probably fielded many dozens of concerns over the years from residents and families about the temperature of the food, bland taste and lack of variety.
Most providers understand the importance of a robust and well received dietary program. A successful program, because of the attention to detail required to execute it, can be indicative to residents, and potential residents and their families, of the overall level of service and attention to the little things that a community can provide. ‘If you can’t take care of the food, how can you take care of my mom?’
The solution to these concerns is not, however, as easy as just spending more money or hiring a better chef, as a huge range of dietary restrictions within a single community can prohibit much active intervention. The solution is usually different for each community, as the passion of the team, physical kitchen restraints and other variables allow for different levels of intervention.
Currently, communities with the best dietary programs have adopted the practice of a term that Senior GuidePost is coining ‘Culinary Integration.’ Culinary Integration takes many forms, based on the needs and capabilities within each community. At its core, Culinary Integration means incorporating the dietary department’s activities with the lives of the residents through a variety of practices that can include the following, and an almost infinite number of variations:
- Utilizing a cross-departmental approach to the dietary department. An example of this approach would be engaging the activities department to schedule baking classes, nursing department to provide community wide education on health implications of certain diets, and housekeeping to teach classes on properly setting a table for a certain function. Reducing the ‘siloing’ effect of the senior living departmental philosophy act to both improve the effectiveness of the dietary department’s output, but also to engage senior residents with their surroundings and those that are charged with serving them.
- Building dietary programming that includes residents, both through resident food councils that allow for dialogue on menus, as well as through adoption of recipes that residents submit and have used throughout their lives. This will allow for the overall improvement in the level of satisfaction that the resident population has for the in place programming, and shows to residents and their families that care and attention is given to the needs and desires of those that are most important in a community.
One byproduct of Culinary Integration is that it humanizes the dietary staff to residents, and residents to the dietary staff. This allows each party to approach the other more disarmed, and with a better understanding of the respective worlds in which they operate. For a resident population to better understand the dietary restrictions under which the culinary staff have to operate, and to be fully educated on the impact of not following these restrictions can have on fellow residents can give residents a more understanding approach to some of their concerns they may have regarding their Thursday evening supper.
Culinary Integration aside, the senior living industry appears to be approaching somewhat of a renaissance with regard to the future for the dietary departments going forward.
Every step of the senior living process, from initial community design and development through staffing and the promotion of family interaction, must fully consider their company’s dietary philosophy. Company’s that take the holistic approach to dietary programming will be the innovators that the entire industry looks at in the future. For sure, many of the innovations that our industry will see are yet to be considered, but those that are currently being implemented have a lean towards Culinary Integration, and many are concepts that are either pioneered by outside companies that serve the industry or were originally utilized in industries other than ours and are currently being implemented in a senior setting. Some include:
- Greenhouses and community gardens that actually seek out resident input and assistance in growing and harvesting. These settings also use the food and herbs grown in this environment and by residents and staff as ingredients during meal preparation, providing purpose, mission and a source of pride for residents, which can be lacking in a senior living setting;
- In communities with multi-level care options, true intentionality is given to the dining experience, and how each residents, based on their acuity level and dietary needs, can be served by the physical space around them. What was once a dining room with an adjacent private dining room, is now designed as a diverse set of dining room options, certainly intended to provide variety to the resident, but also as importantly, intended to separate acuity levels during dining. Depending upon the care setting, this separation allows for easier organization of dietary restriction needs, queuing by staff, and engagement by families and residents by promoting appropriately connected dining companions.
- Many communities are exploring their options of food service providers and giving preference to those that can offer locally sourced and sustainable products. As our society places continue to prioritize to these products, our seniors and their families will begin to insist upon their integration into the regular diets of residents. For sure, this is being done in some parts of the country with commitment and consistency, but as an industry, innovation is still coming on wide sweeping changes to the sources of ingredients.
- Menu design and implementation is increasingly becoming consistent across multi-property companies, allowing for executive management to direct attention to dietary philosophy away from the daily focus on dietary consistency. Although the consistency issue will never be completely resolved, there are third party providers that allow communities to design robust menus and source product from an innovative platform allowing the chef to play a more strategic role in the quality and variety of the food service options that residents have.
Strategic Approach to Dietary Innovation:
Ultimately, innovation in the dietary department begins with a fresh and authentic appreciation for the importance of this program. Framing virtually every conversation around the dinner table prioritizes a communities’ approach to food service and makes it a part of every strategic planning session. Engaging all stakeholders, including residents, families, staff and the third party providers, around this dinner table will ensure that your community is an innovator, and will build brand ambassadors for your company in 2018.
True innovation has made it to the culinary experience in senior living, and the future is bright for our residents as senior living providers continue to gather everyone around the table to discuss their needs and wants. As the daily efforts of senior living management continue to be transitioned to empowered teams within communities and third party providers with innovative approaches, true ‘master chefs in culinary innovation’ will emerge from the weeds and executive teams will be able to continue to ‘Look up’ to serve their residents.