A good meal can offer more benefits than just nutrition; food plays an important part in social life and activity; especially in the elderly. A good meal is often used to mark welcomes and goodbyes, celebrations such as birthdays and other special days.
Over the years, science and social experiments have proven that such occasions can help to encourage eating, release memories, and stimulate conversation amongst elderly people – even enhancing morale within care homes in some cases. In residential care accommodation, residents are often encouraged to invite guests, whether it be friends or family members, for a simple meal or even just for a cup of tea. As residents will be used to dining with family members prior to residing in their care home, this idea also creates a sense of familiarity, too and is beneficial to the wellbeing of residents.
Mealtimes are a mainstay of life in a care home in which residents’ experiences are characterised and enhanced. Understanding how residents interact with one another, accommodating their preferences and encouraging autonomy are pivotal aspects in enhancing dining experiences. The transition from independent living to life in care can be stressful for some residents, and accommodating their needs during social events such as mealtimes can improve health and wellbeing over the long-term.
Blueleaf has identified some key elements in improving the dining experience for care home residents and discuss the importance of doing so.
Enhancing wellbeing using interior design
It goes without saying that every effort should be made to make the eating environment as attractive and as culturally appropriate as possible. A recent trend known as Biophilic Design which involves connecting with nature to improve health and wellbeing would be an advantageous trend to consider, as it is proven to reduce stress and improve cognitive function. A recent study, in which 7,500 people were surveyed across the world showed that there was a 15% increase in perceived wellbeing and creativity and a 6% increase in productivity when people were exposed to biophilic elements.
A dining environment that is welcoming, relaxing and comfortable has the ability to increase food intake and social interaction. This is important within a care home as levels of loneliness tend to be quite high. A nice environment to dine in can make the eating experience more enjoyable and reduce feeding difficulties in people with dementia living in care homes.
Spatial planning within care homes is also an important consideration; generally residents are used to and familiar with eating in a relatively confined space. i.e. the dining room at home. They would have only experienced a wider space for dining when attending a restaurant or were staying in a hotel, for example. Nursing home dining rooms tend to be large, open space and this contrast has the power to change the paradigm for eating. Therefore, it is a good idea to break the space down into smaller areas, which can be done with clever use of free-standing screening or using furniture pieces as room dividers.
This will help to make a smaller, more homely space feel without creating a navigational nightmare or spending large sums of money on renovation.
Using familiarity and routine to help tackle dementia
People with dementia can have problems eating and drinking, often putting them at risk of malnutrition. Regular mealtimes are good biologically as they provide rhythm and routine, eliminating the risk of malnutrition or dehydration.
In addition to arranging set meal times, nurses and other caregivers should consider exploring ways of providing a social environment that promotes individual dignity and comfort, whilst encouraging residents suffering from dementia to eat. Turning meal times into a social activity will help create and maintain independence, so offer company if the resident doesn’t enjoy eating alone.
Familiar sounds of cooking, smells of food, and familiar sights can help offer stability within residents suffering from dementia; as do regular meal times. Although people have different eating routines and preferences – some like a light lunch and larger evening meal whilst others prefer to have a main meal in the middle of the day, it is important to arrange consistent meal times.
Don’t overlook the importance of variety and options
It should be ensured that elderly people living in residential care accommodation are offered variety and an alternative choice of food. It is also beneficial to keep records of the food preferences of each resident in some cases, a food diary. This will allow nurses to keep track of what residents are eating and drinking when, and how much, to reduce the risks of malnutrition and dehydration. In 2018 it was reported that hundreds of care home patients have died suffering from malnutrition or dehydration. From 2013 to 2017, dehydration was noted in 398 cases, whilst malnutrition recorded 226 times, so more needs to be done to ensure fewer patients are at risk of these conditions.
One of CQC’s regulations is meeting nutritional and hydration needs. The intention of this regulation is to make sure that people who use services have adequate nutrition and hydration to sustain good health and reduce the risks of malnutrition and dehydration while they receive care and treatment. Forward-planning menus with various options not only allows nutritional food to be planned in, but also allows residents to create an appetite for a particular meal.
A recent report which comprised the opinions of 302 residents, 81 visitors and 250 staff from 31 care homes, showed that within care establishments across the UK, there was no publication of a second food option and no menu plans for the week ahead displayed. This shows that resident choice and control was limited and that more needs to be done to create a menu that reflects the needs and wants of residents.
Another way to stimulate appetite can be done by planning and encouraging residents to go on trips and outings outside the residential care home. This may activate appetite by providing exercise, fresh air and a change of food choice.
Reducing loneliness through social activities
As mealtimes are a pivotal part of day-to-day life in a care home, the experience that come alongside is often an important stimulator of wellbeing and quality of life of residents. They represent more than just the provision of nutrition as they may offer residents (and staff) the opportunity to form and sustain important social relationships.
As humans need structure and routine, regular mealtimes offer a sense of containment and familiarity, and can evoke deep feelings of contentment and security. Mealtimes offer the opportunity to listen to and interact with others and are a time in which worries and concerns can be expressed and listened to.
Food is used to provide comfort, express feelings, celebrate or reward success, and nurture companionship. No matter what your budget is, you can still promote a sociable, positive experience; that will have residents looking forward to their next meal.