Focusing on the Importance of Food for Healthy Aging

This story was originally printed in the Edmonton Journal’s Today’s Senior section in partnerhsip with Post Media and the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council on October 31, 2016, and in the winter 2016 edition of the Community Connections newsletter. A special big thank you to Loreen Wales from Revive Wellness and Imran Sumra from Our Parent’s Home for their help with this story.

When Chef Ana Maria Muhammad started her career with GEF Seniors Housing, she knew the kitchen at the lodge had a big responsibility.

“I quickly realized that this isn’t a restaurant, this is these seniors’ homes,” Muhammad says. She goes on to explain that she visually notices a huge difference in the people living in the lodge when the food is good. Since taking over the kitchen at Ottewell Place lodge, she’s opened up the lines to communication not just with the other staff but with the residents as well.

The idea of food playing directly into quality of life isn’t a novel concept. But the stigma around bad food in seniors’ homes is prevalent. So more chefs working in seniors environments are paying extra close attention to the food they serve and making sure they aren’t putting together menus in solitude.

Registered nutritionist and CEO of Revive Wellness Loreen Wales is excited to see this as a growing trend in seniors housing. She previously worked in a number of hospitals and explains that the food she saw being served to very sick people wasn’t going to do much for their health.

“People have a desire for that sense of empowerment and no one wants to feel like they’re being force-fed something,” Wales says. “Food is exciting! So much of our lives revolve around eating and the food we serve to people shouldn’t just be different components slopped together with no thought to taste.”

Wales explains that seniors are at a greater risk of malnutrition which can lead to a drop in immune-response and sarcopenia, a rapid loss of muscle mass in the body. She points out that seniors who eat better tend to live longer and don’t experience as many typical aging issues as quickly.

Chef Imran Sumra, Hospitality Manager at Our Parent’s Home in downtown Edmonton, prides his kitchen on fresh ingredients and quality meals for his menus. He holds both a Red Seal designation and a Diploma in Food and Nutrition Management and uses his wide knowledge base in his kitchen to create meals that follows closely the nutritional needs of seniors while still appealing to the residents’ palettes.

“A lot of seniors start to lose their appetites because of things like medications,” says Sumra. “So there has to be flavour and there has to be meals that they want to eat otherwise they simply won’t have that great quality of life we want them to have.”

Sumra’s focus on fresh ingredients plays both into how nutrients from herbs and vegetables are better absorbed into the body when they’re fresh but also the difference in quality. Our Parent’s Home’s kitchen boasts entrees from prime rib and steak to curries and lamb. For Sumra, he knows following budgets are important, but he will focus on quality over cost any day.

For Muhammed, opening up the lines of communication to the residents has meant she’s been able to expand the menu into working with some of the residents’ own home recipes while still working within the prescribed guidelines from the Canada Food Guide. GEF Seniors Housing works closely with Revive Wellness to review the menus and ensure that all the important points of nutrition are being met, while still making food that the residents are going to enjoy.

“I love that I get to keep learning about all these different foods,” Muhammed says. “The residents’ feedback helps make sure that everyone in the kitchen is always improving and getting better at what they do to make our residents happy.”

Muhammad’s passion for food easily translated into her work with seniors. “I just think about how much I love my parents,” she says. “And I look at the residents like they’re my parents too. What I serve from my kitchen, I would serve to my own parents.”

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