Baby boomers have always been the pig in the python, refashioning the culture and environment around them. In the early ’60s, it was an increase in building elementary schools for them; in the ’70s, it was the uptick in college admissions. Now it’s adapting retirement homes to their tastes and passions, especially in regards to their stomachs.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, there were approximately 76 million births between 1946 and 1964. Around 65.2 million are still alive, making up 24 percent of the population. That’s a number worth addressing. Today’s senior citizens are living longer, in part for eating healthy, fresh, organic and local foods coupled with less fat and sodium. Many are choosing retirement communities at an earlier age, and management is incorporating healthy changes into their dining options.
Many of the retirement communities in the New River Valley and Roanoke region are responding with more choice, adopting healthier recipes and using local foods in season. Some, like Brandon Oaks of Roanoke and Warm Hearth Village in Blacksburg, even sponsor farmers markets on site, so not only residents and staff can buy locally and fresh, but chefs as well. Brandon Oaks has Homestead Creamery visit once a week so residents can stock up on good, local, dairy products.
One notable trend is moving from cafeteria style to restaurant dining. At Commonwealth Living in Christiansburg, the residents have a choice between two meals, and their choices are plated in the kitchen and served at their table. Some chefs create activity stations where residents can choose the combination of ingredients for their dish and watch a chef prepare it. “Stir fry night is a big favorite,” says Brandon Oaks chef Warren Jones. “It’s fun to watch, and it smells great.”
Sometimes there’s a restaurant on site like the Fireside Grill and Huckleberry Cafe at Warm Hearth Village. Brandon Oaks has The Grille. You can also find Grab-and-Go stations with packaged sandwiches, fruit, pudding, snacks and treats.
Tobie Bowe, director of dining services at Brandon Oaks, says: “It’s important to keep it fresh and interesting.” There are fall-winter and spring-summer menu cycles, and dishes rotate every five weeks. Holidays generate special menus. There are Friday night cookouts and barbeques in warm months, and one Sunday a month brings a champagne brunch, a big favorite with waffle and omelet stations.
It wouldn’t be the 21st century without some technology, and residents have apps to use in the dining room. Bowe introduced The Bite System, which works with the kitchen’s online menu to calculate various factors, such as calorie count, fat and sodium content and vitamin percentages for each food item being served that day. Residents bring the app up on their phone or tablet, plug in the amounts they ate and find out exactly what nutritional needs were met.
Feedback is crucial to the process. Residents are encouraged to talk to the chefs or staff members or fill out comment cards found on every table. T. Michael Smith, president of the Brandon Oaks Resident Council, says every monthly meeting involves going through the comment cards. “As you get older, food becomes very important, and it needs to be good to promote sociability,” he relates. “Our people do a great job in listening to the residents and trying to accommodate the wide range of tastes.”
Andrew Fillers, director of dining services at Warm Hearth Village, concurs about the importance of food for seniors. “Food should always be an experience,” he believes. “And for seniors, it is one of the few things they can control, so it’s important that we listen and try to accommodate them.”
The result of all this listening is a pretty satisfied clientele. As Smith points out, the majority of the comment cards are positive, complimenting the chefs for a dish, or a staff member for the help he or she gave to the resident. Smith’s favorite meal is prime rib night, but he can always find something good to eat. “Besides,” he quips, “what’s not to like? I get a good meal that I don’t have to cook or clean up.”
Roberta McGuire, another Brandon Oaks resident, also has kind words for the dining staff. The stir fry is her favorite, and she loves the flexibility for meal times as well as the wide variety of food choices. “Meal time is an occasion for me to enjoy getting to know people and appreciate the freedom from meal planning, shopping, preparing and cleaning up,” she states. “I don’t miss cooking, and I can say with pride that I have had my oven on only one time in the three months I have been here.”


Written by Becky Hepler

Becky Hepler is a retired high school librarian and freelance writer who lives in Giles County.