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Meal time at the nursing home
by collette mcfarland 
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Meal time at the nursing home

One of the residents in a nursing home I’m responsible for as an Ombudsman (representative) has been insisting that I sample the meals they serve, contending if she had to eat this food I should also. I had dragged my feet for so long a trench could have been made and filled with water to make an old fashion moat complete with alligators to eat the leftovers or in some instances before the food even became leftovers, or maybe they could just throw the dietitians in and order out from Burger King!!!

First I went to the administrator and asked for permission to eat, which she gladly consented to by providing me with a free pass. I would have been happier if she had declined my request so I’d have a legitimate excuse to not join Elaine. Then I found the dining room, a major feat for me since I always got turned around in the hallways, eventually I will be able to get around without a seeing eye dog. Heck half the residents here had bad eyesight and Alzheimer’s and could pass me in the hallways on the way to their destinations.

About twenty chair -less white cloth covered tables were being organized in the dining room. Two glasses per resident, one for the mandatory water provided with at each meal, an another for a beverage of their choice. Silverware wrapped in a napkin marked each setting. No candles though, as most of the diners came equipped with oxygen, candles would provide a bang similar to earth’s creation.

Well, here I was on my day off looking for a chair to sit in at a nursing home, the residents came with their own seats, chairs with wheels, and came good and early to claim their spots. Sometimes as early as an hour, what else did they have to do but wait to be fed three times a day? They rolled slowly down the carpeted hallways but soared into the dining room when they reached linoleum where their rides met no resistance. It was amusing watching all these grannies scud missile to their tables in bumper car fashion. No assigned seating meant they had to race to get their desired spots. No assigned seating but definite permanent preferences.

I located Elaine, the resident who had invited me, (or should I say dared me.) It was touted as home cooking served restaurant style. I wonder if this meant the residents were suppose to leave a tip? Nursing homes are trying to improve the dining experience by listening to the consumer, novel idea. Well it certainly wasn’t restaurant style as far as the service went. Plates were brought out individually and to separate tables. No one group of residents were served at the same time. It seemed it would be much easier to use a rolling cart and bring several plates from the buffet counter at once, it would shorten the wait and reduce the workload, but oh well, I’m just here on a dare, I shouldn’t be giving advice, should I? It did give the residents prolonged exposure to socialization and bickering. It also gave me time to scrutinize the plates as they were walked past. Except for the puréed meals (some only ate pureed food due to swallowing difficulties) everything looked presentable, but at with my age and three marriages I know how deceptive looks can be.

Every one wore pastel stripped, terry cloth bibs and I petitioned one for myself, I wanted to fit in, peer pressure and all. Elaine, the perfect hostess, wheeled herself to the laundry cabinet and retrieved one for me.

A frail lady who truly should have been in a wheel chair but was pushing a walker attempted to join us at the table. Elaine and Laura, one the regular table mates, prevented this from happening, very diplomatically.

“Get away from here, you old battle-axe! This isn‘t your table.” They ordered in unison. The newcomer sauntered off perplexed. Nice welcome for a new resident! I did mention they had no assigned seating but definite permanent preferences. Oh, well, this is one time Alzheimer’s is beneficial, the poor lady has already forgotten she was rejected and found some other agreeable companions that invited her to join them, Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart, (so they finally found her!)

Those at my table received their meals before me, individually and over ten minutes time. I eyed their plates suspiciously, trying to identify the entrees. The staff must have thought this would be slow torture like locking me in a room with dripping water and no toilet. Mine finally came, and (wow!), was I thrilled. Boiled lobster, baked potato with sour cream and chives, home baked rolls with tablespoons of melting butter dripping off the sides and a napkin that said “Steak and Ale”. Wrong. Gotcha! Thin, crispy chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and spinach is what was really placed before me. This didn’t look like it would be painful. The residents had different meals depending on their health requirements
Warned that the food is usually too salty I test tasted mine and reached for the salt shaker, I must have different standards of salty.

Laura, sitting across from me, is legally blind so Elaine cut her meat while telling her the location of her various side dishes. Recovering from a stroke and somewhat uncoordinated but completely mentally competent and still active in the community, Elaine is the healthiest of those at my table and the unofficial care taker for dear Laura, whose family appreciate her assisting their love one.
Gracie, sitting next to me complained about her salad.
“Don’t eat it if you don’t like it.” Elaine said.
Lifting her milk glass, Gracie looked at me for approval, “I drink all my milk.”
“Good for you, it’ll keep your bones healthy.” I promised.
“Have you seen my son? He’s going to be here today.” Gracie asked
“She doesn’t know your son, she won’t know if he’s here.” Elaine informed her.
“Quack! Quack! Quack!” came from behind me.
“That man is irritating, he does that every meal time!” Elaine divulged. I turned to visualize the man acting like a duck.
“Maybe he’s just clearing his throat,” I offered
“Nope. He’s just an ___.” Elaine repeated, foul language is a problem of all age groups.
“Oh, my gosh!” Gracie yelled causing me to jump and spill some spinach on my lap, way below my bib.
“What’s wrong?” I asked
“Is my son here yet?” Gracie questioned calmly after having obtained my attention.
“Shut up and eat, she doesn’t know your son!” Elaine commanded, poking at her mashed potatoes. “These potatoes taste funny.” she complained.
I sampled mine, actually they were fair after I had buttered, salt and peppered them, and I said so.
“Her’s look different.” Gracie observed comparing their mash potatoes.
Elaine looked at her meal ticket. Cheesy grits. Well she couldn’t argue with that. The potatoes tasted funny but they were just right for cheesy grits. She forgot what she had checked off on her meal ticket.
“I don’t like my salad.” Gracie repeated.
“Spit it out then,” Elaine said, and she did, all over the table.
“For God’s sake, were you raised in a barn?!” Elaine yelled, pulling lettuce off her plate and throwing it back at Gracie.
Gracie stopped the beverage cart and asked for some coffee, I winced, hoping she didn’t burn her tongue, or worse, me, if she spewed it out like the salad, I inched a litter further away and rotated my bib to cover any flesh facing Gracie.
“I think I see my son,” Gracie said wheeling herself away. Her son must have a visibility problem, I couldn’t see anyone.
The desserts came out and since Gracie had excused herself, I introduced her key lime pie to mine, this meal just got better. The pie was home cooked the same way I made mine, by removing it from the freezer, taking it out of the box and thawing it per the typed instructions of Mrs. Smith. Actually the whole meal was decent. Just like home cooking no meal will come out the same way or taste like a highly trained chef was in the kitchen overseeing things, unless of course it was the chef’s own home!

Well from start to finish the banquet lasted about 1 ½ hours and in three more hours the residents would be gathering back here for their final meal of the day, but not their final snack, carts went up and down the hallway to provide nutrition in the evening. Apparently if a resident started loosing weight it looked bad on the records so the aim was to fatten them up without consideration of the health risks; increased fat tissue leads to decreased muscle tone and mass, leading to dehydration, low immunity and from there the list is endless. As I pointed out early, nearly everyone was in a wheel chair so exercise was minimal and confined to upper body movements and leg kicks, that is if a resident chooses to attend the exercise class. The fear being if a resident fell because they were unsteady would lead to repercussions. Well, of course they are unsteady on their feet, if you don’t use it you loose it is not a lie it’s a pearl of wisdom.

After saying my good byes, going from table to table meeting new residents and hugging those I was already acquainted with, I noticed the staff gathering up leftovers. Most plates had been barely untouched and were heading to the garbage. The residents are offered so much to eat during the day and exert so little physical energy their appetites are non existent, they eat out of habit, probably coming to the dining room out of curiosity to see how the meal could be screwed up, visit with friends, or just to break the monotony. What a tremendous waste of food, the home should at least acquire a few trash compactors complete with four legs and wet noses, feeding them would be inexpensive and would bring great pleasure to the natives. I thought my plate was pretty good but my opinion wasn’t shared by all. I was a bad critic, this was better than my home cooking! And any mess I didn’t have to clean up got a gold star in my book.

The staff was now loading up the food carts for the bed bound who were fed last since they needed more assistance. Others just preferred eating in the quietness of their rooms, they didn’t care to socialize or watch others bath in their cuisine. The whole day for the kitchen staff really was spent preparing food, cooking and cleaning; also different from my home where plates went in the trash and prepared food was simply nuked. Time consumed: five minutes tops.

Elaine escorted me to the exit, a little peeved that I had actually enjoyed my fare. As I wished her well until my next visit she recommended we make it a breakfast date. I groaned, now it would be home cooking before sunrise. Elaine explained the residents start filing in to their tables at four in the morning: I reiterate, what else have they got to do!

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