Remembrance of Foods Past

Thriving in old age isn’t simply a matter of nutrition—it’s a matter of taste

| May-June 2010

  • Remembering Past Foods

    image by Kim Rosen /

  • Remembering Past Foods

Everywhere we look  another edible schoolyard is sprouting. In the most progressive schools, children are bringing their produce into the cafeteria to clean it and cook it. Junk food and soda vending machines are disappearing; some districts even outlaw lunchtime visits to fast-food restaurants.

The national concern for our children is important, and it’s one that I share. When my daughter was small I tried to get the local school district to allow more than 20 minutes for lunch; the kids would wolf down their food in eagerness for a few extra minutes of recess. These days my daughter is lucky enough to be at a college where healthy eating is considered part of the larger education. But I am still thinking about institutional meals—except now at the other end of the age spectrum.

Last spring my mother had to enter long-term care. She is someone who always cared passionately about food. In her hands a simple roast chicken was transformed into a dish that both embodied longing and fulfilled desire. And oh, her sweet and sour meatballs! Now she can no longer command her kitchen; she is presented with three generic meals a day. I recognize that the trays are put together with an eye to variety as well as nutrition. But even in her diminished state she discerns what tastes good and what does not, and she responds accordingly.

This experience is shared by many people who find themselves in institu­tional care at the end of their lives. Yet hardly anyone is speaking about better food for the elderly. Their eating habits are not a public health issue, like type 2 diabetes or childhood obesity. But providing pleasure through food is not frivolous; what and how we eat are crucial to the quality of our lives.

The nutritionists who work from charts to devise nutritionally sound menus, balanced in the standard American way with that sacred trinity of protein, vegetable, and starch, are missing something. Although this kind of quantitative analysis serves patients’ physical needs, it falls very short on their mnemonic ones—their rich memories. Swedish studies have shown that the foods served in old-age homes make a huge difference in the way people feel, even those suffering from dementia. Familiar foods can stimulate memories and improve cognition. The aromas and flavors of times past enable us to reconnect with the world, reawakening appetite not only for food but for life.

Standardized cooking is admittedly more efficient, and individualized attention would require additional expense. But we’re caring for people here, not manufacturing something. It should not be too much for caregivers to ask a few more questions when they are assessing each person. What are your culinary traditions? Do you have any comfort foods? How do you feel about broccoli and beets? These questions are so basic that no one ever thinks to ask them, but a meal that triggers a positive emotional response can make an enormous difference in a person’s day.

susan powell_1
6/7/2010 3:08:08 PM

This went straight to my heart. When my mom was in assisted living, the meals were pretty decent and she always found something she liked. When she had to go to the dementia unit the food was very bland, standard institutional fare. Fortunately we lived close enough to bring her home for dinner fairly often and I would often bring juicy organic hamburgers from our Growers Market to have lunch together. Music was another important life element that was lacking. They said not everyone would like jazz, big bands, Dixieland, Mozart, and Bach so the background was always Muzak. Ack!!

cyd wright
4/27/2010 6:50:12 PM

What about the older folks who are long-time vegetarians??? Are their nutrition needs and preferences honored or are they forced to eat meat, even tho it makes them sick???

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