After a year of eating isolated in their rooms residents may be quick to say they do not want to return to the dining room. Research suggests this may not be the best option for them. Seniors who regularly eat alone are often at higher risk for a variety of health issues, especially malnutrition. Malnutrition can lead to a variety of problems, like unintentional weight loss, weakness, dizziness, falls with broken bones, and depression. Eating together provides benefits for every age, but for seniors, it can be even more vital.
With the uncertainty of this virus, boxed meals may be necessary in the event of a facility outbreak. However, if it is safe, encourage residents to leave their room and go to the dining room. Discourage residents from eating in their room and explain the benefits. Although dining together may look a little different than before COVID times the benefits of eating in the dining room with others are substantial. With most residents being vaccinated, communal dining may look similar to before and provide great benefits to residents.
The benefits of residents dining together:
- Studies show we naturally eat more around others and make better food choices.
- One study found that 1 in 5 seniors report that they feel loneliest when eating alone.
- It’s tradition! Dining together can bring back memories of eating with their families.
- New friendships can be made and relationships with others grow while sitting around the table together.
- Another study found that food intake improved in a communal dining setting, and this led to weight gain and corresponding improvements in nutritional status and rehabilitation.
- People who eat meals together have been shown to eat more fruit, vegetables, dairy, and fiber compared to those who eat alone.
- Research suggests that people who eat alone have higher rates of obesity and are at higher risk of chronic diseases and complications.
- Those who eat regularly with others often report feeling happier, are more trusting of the people around them, and feel more engaged with their community.
- Food is served quicker in the dining room and quality is better. When a meal is delivered directly from the kitchen to the dining room food is fresher and hotter. If food is boxed to be delivered down a hall to a resident’s room quality begins to decline. Cold food and melted ice cream is not appealing to anyone!
- There is more staff in the dining room. If residents need refills, second helpings, specific condiments, or an alternative entrée that request can be fulfilled immediately in the dining room.
- The absence of supervision can make choking risks higher when residents dine alone in their room.
Although some residents may be hesitant to go the dining room due to insecurities, depression, or other reasons it may be best for their health to dine with others. Staff can try a more direct approach to encourage residents. For instance, instead of asking, “Ms. Smith would you like to go to the dining room for breakfast? Try “Good morning Ms. Smith. They have bacon, eggs, and hot fresh pancakes this morning in the dining room and I’d love to take you down there for a fresh meal.” Staff can also explain to residents the many benefits listed above. For the elderly, dining together can be essential for better health.
L Wright, M Hickson, and G Frost. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2006 Feb;19(1):23-6. “Eating together is important: using a dining room in an acute elderly medical ward increases energy intake” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16448471/