COVID-19: How senior communities nourished residents' bodies, souls during the pandemic

When senior living communities and assisted-living facilities went into lockdown last year, the task of maintaining morale among residents often fell in part to these communities’ cooks and chefs.

Andrew Atkins
Naples Daily News

At Gulf Coast Village, a senior living community in Cape Coral, the residents couldn’t wait for the sound of the food cart. 

They’d mark their meal choices the night before via a menu left hanging on their doors. When the food arrived the next day, it sometimes exceeded their expectations: Staff would shuttle down the hallways pushing a happy hour cart, a taco Tuesday cart, or a take-me-out-to-the-ballgame cart complete with foot-long hotdogs. 

It was the one certain thing the community’s residents had to look forward to in the pandemic according to Crystal Thompson, Gulf Coast Village’s director of dining services. Often, they’d step outside before staff could push the cart to their door, as eager for the physical nourishment as they were the emotional. 

Eugene Lyall, the sous chef at Bentley Village in Naples starts the process working on meals for residents on Wednesday, June 16, 2021

When senior living communities and assisted-living facilities went into lockdown last year, the task of maintaining morale among residents often fell in part to these communities’ cooks and chefs. 

More food coverage: Your post-pandemic guide to food and dining in Southwest Florida

And: How SWFL foodies used social media to help local restaurants during the COVID pandemic

“They would just want to share their day and talk about how much of a difference it made,” Thompson said. “For them to have the dining team knock on their door to say ‘Hello’ and stop and chat really made the day for many of them.”

Residents such as Thomas and Carol McCann of Moorings Park in Naples, pick these senior living communities for their ability to connect with other retirees. For most of the seven years they’ve lived in Moorings Park, the McCanns have enjoyed swinging by one of the full-service restaurants, where they can dine with familiar faces.

When the state shuttered dining rooms in March 2020, senior living communities — such as Gulf Coast Village, Moorings Park and Vi at Bentley Village — were forced to restructure their entire dining programs in a way that still satisfied the urgent need for socialization among their residents while also keeping staff employed. 

“We were a little bit worried, at the beginning, because we so much enjoyed going to our restaurants at Moorings Park,” Thomas McCann said. “That was the shock of going to in-home dining, because it’s such a delight to be able to have dinner with people.”

Social connection is important for the health and quality of life of elders. It can reduce stress, ward off anxiety and depression and reduce the risk of some physical health concerns, according to the Elder Care Alliance. While communities pivoted to virtual or socially distanced programming for residents, dining teams pivoted in another direction. 

“We had essentially one day’s notice that we needed to change these operations,” said Richard Zazzaro, vice president of dining at Moorings Park.

Veal tenderloin polenta prepared at Vi at Bentley Village.

Moorings Park adapted with a meal delivery concept available to the more than 1,000 residents across its three campuses. While it provided for residents’ physical needs, the lack of in-person dining necessitated a solution for their emotional ones. 

“We understood right away that isolation and personal connection was going to be an issue long-term,” Zazzaro said. 

Dan Lavender, Moorings Park’s CEO, highlighted the necessity for socialization in healthy aging. 

“Obviously, we all know about healthy eating and exercise,” he said. “Just as important is meaningful relationships and connections you make with other people.” 

Thomas McCann understood it was, indeed, important to his neighbors.

“There are some people who are living alone,” he said. “To have that interaction, people have told me, was really helpful for them.” 

Moorings Park wasn’t unique in its transition, and neither were residents in their move from public dining rooms to private living rooms. 

Vi at Bentley Village, Gulf Coast Village and Moorings Park all transitioned to a door-to-door delivery model wherein residents could place their order the day before, and staff would deliver the meal the next day. 

The personal connection from the folks delivering the meals went a long way for residents such as Doug Stather of Bentley Village. If Stather had any criticism, it was more a lament he couldn’t reheat a rare steak and keep it rare — though he noted staff sent out a guide on how to properly reheat food. 

Braised short rib raviolo prepared at Vi at Bentley Village.

“They kept our spirits up. Even though they were wearing masks, you could see them smile. You could see it in their eyes,” Stather said. “In some cases, it was the only person you’d see during the day.” 

Shep Drinkwater, food and beverage director for Bentley Village said the pivot began just before the shutdown.

In one day, the community’s three restaurants closed and staff created an assembly line of sorts for delivering the 500-600 meals they made every day. 

“I’m amazed, astonished, proud, humbled — darn lucky, OK — to have the crew provide such an amazing service for our residents, all while keeping them safe,” Drinkwater said. 

Joel Hetrick is the executive chef at Vi at Bentley Village in Naples.

Bentley Village’s executive chef, Joel Hetrick, said he worked to accommodate resident requests, including placing comfort foods, such as pot roasts, onto the menu, though he’s glad to return to some semblance of normalcy. 

“It feels good to have a couple of our restaurants back up and open and doing a-la-carte service and getting back into that rhythm,” Hetrick said. 

Hetrick received countless notes of gratitude from residents, such as this one Pat and Bill Smart emailed to Drinkwater:

“Shep,” the note reads, “You and your team made our Thanksgiving list of people we are grateful for.” 

And while people like the McCanns and Stather appreciate the efforts of their communities, they’re relieved by the return to familiarity. Stather, in particular, said he was excited to see the familiar faces of staff members in the dining room.

“You think, ‘Man, am I glad that they hung on,' ” Stather said. 

Andrew Atkins writes about food and features for the Naples Daily News. Contact him via email at andrew.atkins@naplesnews.com. To support work like Andrew's, please consider subscribing: https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/