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Senior Living Nutrition Programs: What You Need to Know

What you will learn:

  • What a typical meal plan looks like in Senior Living communities

  • The variety of meal plans offered in Independent Living versus Assisted Living communities

  • Typical costs associated with senior nutrition meals

  • How the dining experience and meal plans differ in a specialized Memory Care community from Assisted Living

  • Special diet accommodations offered in Senior Living communities

  • Ways to monitor a well-balanced diet and ensure balanced nutrition

What does a typical meal plan look like?

Many Senior Living communities offer on-site dining rooms that give the feel of a restaurant setting with a menu of items to choose from. There are also some Senior Living communities that offer only 1 main entree and 1 alternate entree. The meal plans offered will vary at each community; Independent Living communities versus Assisted Living communities and residential care homes.

It is important to understand the different senior nutrition meal plan offerings and how they vary at each community from the number of meals offered to their flexibility with dining hours.

Independent Living meal plan examples:

Independent Living communities generally include breakfast with a choice of lunch or dinner, as well as the option to add other meals for an additional cost. There are a limited number of Independent Living communities that include 3 meals per day as part of the base rent. When choosing a community, be sure to ask what is included.

Assisted Living meal plan examples:

Assisted Living communities offer 3 meals per day included in the base rent. They usually offer snacks in between meals as well. Breakfast generally consists of offerings such as oatmeal, fresh fruit, 1 choice of breakfast meat (which changes daily), scrambled eggs or made to order, and either breakfast potatoes, a biscuit or pancakes.

At most Senior Living communities you can expect that a typical lunch or dinner will consist of soup and salad, an entrée (including a meat), vegetable, starch, and dessert.

Things to keep in mind with senior nutrition programs:

I would recommend reviewing a sample of the community’s weekly menu. Take a close look at how many choices are offered on the daily menu and at each daily meal. For example, is there an alternate choice in addition to the daily menu, or is there an “anytime” menu offered with multiple offerings? Some communities may give you the option of the same menu choices at lunch and dinner as opposed to offering a different menu for each meal. You will find that communities generally provide healthy options as well. Some communities offer an al a carte menu where you can specifically order based on individual tastes.

What variations, if any, are allowed on the meal plan?

As I mentioned earlier, all communities vary. You will find that some communities offer limited options or entree choices whereas other communities may offer a wider variety of menu options or the ability to cook to order. In my experience, I have not seen many communities that cook to order.

Communities typically prepare a large quantity of food and generally serve all of the residents around the same time especially if meal times are set.

In a smaller, residential home care community with 4 to 6 residents, you may find that there is 1 menu item offered per meal and likely only 1 alternate.

Most communities offer their own unique dining experience. Some communities will have a hostess seat you, while other communities may have assigned seating, open seating, or may require you to make reservations for your meal time. Be sure to ask if there is a dining room dress code.

What are some of the typical costs associated with meals?

In an Independent Living facility, additional meals are sometimes offered at a per meal charge of $4-$10 per meal or an additional monthly fee ranging from $50-$150 per month. The cost may vary depending on the caliber of the community.

There is generally a charge for guest meals which you can expect to range from $3 – $15 per meal. Some communities require you to pay cash for guest meals or have the guest meals billed to your account. Also, you may want to ask if the community offers a private dining room for use when entertaining guests.

Most communities offer room service or delivery of meals. Ask the community if there is a service charge for meal delivery. Is meal delivery complimentary if you need it when you’re not feeling well? If you like to dine in your apartment consistently or can’t make it to the dining room for meals, can meal delivery be added into your care plan as opposed to a separate cost? Is there a fee if you order your meal to-go and pick it up in the dining room to take back to your apartment?

If you request special items through the dietary department such as supplements like Ensure, there may be an additional cost to you for these items.

Some communities will offer a café on site where you can purchase beverages, sandwiches, desserts, etc. for an additional charge.

If special assistance is necessary with regard to meal reminders or a personal escort to accompany you to and from the dining room, be sure to ask if there is an additional charge for these services.

Most communities will accommodate special diets such as puree or mechanical soft. You should determine if there are any costs associated with this or if this is something that would cause the care plan cost to increase.

Special meal accommodations for Memory Care:

You will find that Memory Care communities design their dining experience with structure to accommodate those with memory impairment. Their dining rooms are typically in a smaller, more intimate setting. Because people with memory impairments often have difficulty with depth perception and the ability to distinguish food on their plates, some communities will serve their meals on colorful Fiestaware to provide a contrast. Most communities will also offer finger foods as an entrée at meal times. Finger foods may be easier to pick up and eat for someone with memory impairment and provide an alternate choice to using utensils.

3 meals per day are included in the rent in Assisted Living as well as Memory Care communities. The overall cost of living in Assisted Living communities is significantly greater in comparison to the overall cost of living in Memory Care communities. However, this overall increase does not necessarily have to do with the cost of the meal plan. Memory Care communities generally offer a higher staffing ratio, thereby enabling them to provide closer supervision of the residents. The staff typically receives additional training that is specialized for Alzheimer’s and Dementia care residents.

How are special diets for conditions such as diabetes dealt with?

Most communities accommodate special diets such as sugar free, no-added salt, puree and mechanical soft.

In a typical Alzheimer or Dementia care community, the chef is given a photo of residents who have special dietary needs. This will assist the dietary team at meal time in easily identifying those residents with a special diet.

The dietary staff should guide and encourage residents to make healthy choices. However, residents do have the right to make their own decisions.

Most communities do not cook with salt. However, salt and pepper are usually available on each table in the dining room. There is usually a sugar-free dessert offered for diabetic residents such as sugar-free ice cream.

Be sure to ask the community to clarify which special diets can be accommodated for residents. Are any additional fees assessed for accommodating a special diet or are they added to the care plan? Will they increase the total cost of the care plan?

Steps to make sure your loved one gets the right nutrition:

Most communities offer a well-balanced menu that is created and supervised by a registered dietitian or nutritionist. Be sure to preview the weekly menu. Ask who prepares it and if they use a registered dietitian.

Most Assisted Living communities weigh their residents monthly. You should communicate with the community nurse or wellness department and ask to view any documentation around your loved one’s weight. This is a great way to monitor weight gain and/or weight loss.

You can also specify personal diet preferences as part of your loved one’s care plan if there is a health issue that should be closely monitored such as diabetes or portion control.

I would recommend having a meal at a few different communities to preview the dining experience including the menu choices, overall taste of the food, and quality of service. Most communities offer complimentary meals to prospects who are considering moving in.

Final thoughts on senior health and nutrition:

A typical meal plan will include anywhere from 1 to 3 meals per day and alternate menu options will vary at each community. Meal plan options range from the number of meal choices, open seating and assigned seating, to set meal times and anytime dining.

Typically, you can expect additional costs in Independent Living communities if you choose to increase the number of meals you receive. There are generally additional costs associated with guest dining. Some communities charge a fee for meal delivery while other communities include this service.

Memory Care communities provide 3 meals per day included in the base rent. They generally design the dining experience to accommodate those with memory impairment by providing a small, intimate setting with structured meal times.

Most communities accommodate special diets such as sugar free, no-added salt, puree and mechanical soft and will note and make accommodations for any diet specifications on the resident care plan.

Communicate regularly with the Chef regarding any diet preferences or if you have any questions about the menu. You can also speak with the Community Nurse to discuss weight monitoring and the development of a personalized nutrition care plan for your loved one.

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