Australian cook and restaurateur Maggie Beer says food is the one thing that can give residents in aged care homes the most pleasure. It can give them a reason to get out of bed in the morning and an “appetite for life”. Yet many “oldies”, as Beer affectionately refers to them, don’t have access to fresh, wholesome food or quality meal experiences in aged care homes.
“Without the nutrients from really good food they don’t have the energy to be committed to living rather than existing,” she says.
“This is the most instant gratification that they will get. If you have things to look forward to you’re more positive about life.”
With a desire to bring about positive change, Beer established the Maggie Beer Foundation in 2014 to challenge community attitudes, change institutional food preparation practice and raise awareness of the link between food and emotional wellbeing for older people.
Since then, Beer has hosted a series of masterclasses across Australia for aged care chefs and cooks, as well as equally important masterclasses for CEOs and managers who are committed to making a difference in aged care kitchens.
“You need two champions in an aged care home,” says Beer. “You need the cook or the chef and you need the CEO or the CFO. You need leadership that believes in this.”
The Creating an Appetite for Life workshops aim to inspire and challenge cooks and chefs to create nutritious, full-flavoured, low cost meals for residents in aged care homes. The program also addresses challenges within the sector, which Beer says often includes budget restraints, lack of training and institutionalised thinking.
Another challenge is the stigma that surrounds aged care chefs and the perception that they are the “lowest on the totem pole”.
“Cooks or chefs in the aged care sector should be revered, as these are the people that can do more to make the daily life of the residents happier and give them the energy to be involved and the pleasure that they need and deserve,” she says.
“Cooks and chefs and everyone in aged care works very hard. But they need to be celebrated for doing something really well. Because to do it well, they need to be really good and it’s far more complex than cooking meals in a café.”
She says the key to overcoming these challenges is to get everyone involved.
“It doesn’t matter how good the cooks are if the staff are so pushed for time that they’re not taking the time they need to respect the food that’s been made with love,” she says.
“Everyone has got to come on board, which is why champions are so important.”
Beer says it’s also important to think about the whole dining experience for aged care residents.
“It’s thinking about small details that you would have in your own home,” she says. “Like having an outlook as you sit and dine, some flowers on the table – and yes in a dementia unit you’d make sure the flowers are edible in case they ate them.
“Engaging all the senses with food, having the smell of real food being cooked, the smells of bread baking, butter in the biscuits, or onions being sautéed.”
She says this is a crucial element to the overall dining experience, even if the food is being made in an external kitchen.
“You can still introduce those smells of home cooking by cooking the vegetables at the last moment or pan frying the onions so that the aromas can flow through to the residents, letting them know it is dinner time,” says Beer.
“You want people to feel like this is their home, it is not a facility.”
Looking ahead, Beer says one of the issues she hopes to address is the lack of training in aged care kitchens.
“These people love what they’re doing, but often they’ve just fallen into it because someone has left and there’s a gap so they have a go,” she says.
“We don’t have nearly enough training and they’re hungry for it. They want the knowledge, they want inspiration and they want support.”
Aside from the workshops, the Maggie Beer Foundation is currently developing a partner program that will recognise best practice and innovation in aged care foodservice, as well as conducting evidence-based research into the benefits of wholesome food in aged care.
Beer says while the initiatives won’t provide immediate solutions they are an important step forward.
“None of these are immediate answers, but they are templates of finding great things and being able to work with positive things rather than negative,” she says.
“It’s a very large and complex area but I can see the industry wants to do better and therefore, they want to know how. Certainly the people I talk to want to bring about change and that’s a great thing.”