Visitors arriving by elevator at a West Palm Beach, Fla., assisted-living facility encounter an unexpected scent as the doors separate: aromatic, steamy chicken soup.
Just a few feet away, in a contemporary kitchen with Chef Richard Nowaczyk at the helm, two large soup pots, filled with chicken stock, onions, carrots and celery, are simmering and sending their soothing bouquet throughout the floor. Three residents, all in their 80s, sit at the kitchen island as Nowacyk finishes assembling chicken salad, fruit trays and orange blossom cakes.
“The baked goods are always excellent,” said Irma Seifer, 82, a resident. “My mother was a phenomenal cook. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t make.”
Developers of this unit at MorseLife, a non-profit senior-citizen housing and medical complex, hope the kitchen keeps eliciting memories similar to Seifer’s. These accessible, kosher kitchens, on two floors, are designed to comfort the 53 residents, who have illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease but need minimal medical care.
MorseLife’s open kitchen is an unusual amenity, said Kathryn Hyer, a University of South Florida professor of aging studies, but it likely will become increasingly popular as facilities for senior citizens move away from impersonal institutionalization into “person-centered care,” with an emphasis on each senior’s preferences and life goals.
“The trend in long-term care in assisted living is making it a home,” she said. “You want to have someone enjoy the place they’re living in. The question is how do you do that at an institution.”
Hyer said only a few other assisted-living facilities in Florida have similar open kitchens. These units also have other amenities, such as short hallways, comfortable furniture, activities to make residents feel productive and simple desks instead of hospital-like nursing stations.
Stephanie Frazier, MorseLife Memory Care’s director, said the unit’s developers came up with the kitchen idea as they brainstormed the ideal setting for patients who have memory troubles.
“We knew that many memory-care patients have appetite problems,” Frazier said. “We thought if you could walk in and smell the food, and always have snacks out, and water and juice on the counter, these things might help them eat more.”
Residents also can walk around unescorted in the unit’s two floors, resembling the freedom of movement they would feel at home, Frazier said. They can stroll in a garden, admire the 700-gallon fish tank, watch television on communal couches or visit the resident beautician. There is even an old Mercedes-Benz on site, where they can sit in the driver’s seat and play the radio.
Matt Kinney, of West Palm Beach, said his mom, Olive, 84, who has vascular dementia, has her own routine. She arrives at lunch an hour early and sits in the same seat each day.
“I love the way every time I visit, I’m met with the smell of cooking food,” Matt Kinney said. “You have this sensory reaction of being in a house.”
The cost is $7,000 or $7,500 a month, depending on the size of the resident’s room, Frazier said. According to Genworth, a long-term financial planning service, the average cost of memory-care assisted living in the United States was $5,000 a month in 2012, with ranges from a low of $1,500 to a high closer to MorseLife’s rate.
Frazier said the open kitchen is unlikely to reverse a memory-care patient’s condition, but might spur thought processes that slow further decline. Comfort foods are intentionally chosen: meat loaf, spaghetti, minestrone soup, brisket and beef stew are staples, as well as made-from-scratch muffins, croissants and danishes that bake each morning.
Trendy dishes, such as quinoa, have proven to be flops, as have too many choices at a meal, which confuses some impaired patients, culinary director Jonathan Landau said. He said the consistency of a soup and sandwich each lunch has worked best.
“We’ve created a stage for the cooks to be on display at all times and have the interaction,” Landau said. “We have knowledge of each person and their likes and dislikes. We’re working in their home.”
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