Leaders Build Community in the Dining Room

Mealtime at home. Nourishment at the hearth. In the senior care environment, are elders having the sensory and emotional experiences that such terms evoke? As Judah Ronch, professor of Management of Aging Services, writes, “…dining is much more than the delivery of nutrients carefully calculated to reduce health issues or maintain strength.” Indeed, dining is a time and place where hearts are fed as well as stomachs. How can we create a dining environment that does both?

At the core, the senior care community is a place where strangers are coming to live together. Imagine individuals from different cultures coming to sit around a common fire. The residents are a diverse and often complex group of people, choosing to live with others and enjoy services not provided elsewhere. Over time, most residents grow to appreciate their neighbors and bond through their common needs. The dining room is an important place where this supportive social bonding may occur naturally.

I like to say that the kitchen is the heart of the home, but it is the warmth people bring to each other that is the hearth.

Serving staff have the unique opportunity to model bringing warmth to one another in an environment of strangers. The dining experience is a natural place to build community, to transform neighbors into friends. Most residents become attached to staff members, whom they see more often then family. Servers are potential leaders in the dining room, however they must be trained to understand their importance in cultivating residents’ well-being.

Too often, staff don’t come to work realizing they are working in someone’s home. Servers walking into their community’s dining setting may see cultural, generational, or socioeconomic differences between themselves and the residents. They may not realize that the residents see similar differences amongst themselves. The “community of strangers” includes the serving staff, which is likely made up of “unskilled” workers who have not had more than four weeks of training in their duties. Their training has not included the relationship-building communication skills they would need to become community leaders in the dining room. They may feel as emotionally isolated as brand-new residents in the group.

Administrators know that an atmosphere of community, where people experience a sense of acceptance and belonging, makes their senior living environment more desirable and improves the bottom line. However, many administrators have not historically seen themselves in the hospitality business. It is a worthwhile investment to train servers as leaders and community builders. A valuable sense of warmth in the dining room can be attained through staff’s personal and professional skills – without expensive remodels to the built environment.

This staff training must be focused on breaking down perceived barriers between people of different backgrounds, cultivating relationship skills, and building self-esteem by giving each staff member a voice. When staff see their own value and are able to care for each other, they are better able to respond to resident needs. “Getting it right” at the table creates respect and dignity for both staff and residents.

I flew out to New Hampshire’s Villa Crest Nursing and Retirement Center to conduct a three-day Kind Dining® training workshop for a committed core group of 14 staff partners. We discussed the importance of hospitality and how much it can affect the experience of sitting down to a meal. Partners had the opportunity to reflect on their preconceptions about the elderly, to bond with each other, and to gain a compassionate understanding of resident needs. Two partners became Certified Kind Dining® Trainers who spearhead Villa Crest’s on-going service improvement program.

Villa Crest is now winner of the national 2011 Optima award presented by Long-Term Living Magazine for innovative, outcome-oriented staff teamwork in long-term care communities. Its dining room/restaurant CHOICES has been a big hit since it opened in April 2010. Villa Crest reports that social activity has increased and personal connections among residents have been enhanced by the culture change in the dining room. Residents report being highly satisfied with both the food and the dining experience. Extended family and community members choose to dine at the Villa Crest rather than taking residents elsewhere for visiting. Staff welcome residents by name, introduce residents to each other, and cater to their individual dining preferences. In a little over a year, Villa Crest increased its meal revenue by an impressive 80%, proving that an investment in community is valuable in financial terms as well as emotional ones.