Mar 08, 2018

What it’s Really Like Cooking for the Elderly: Letter from an Aged Care Chef

I’m great and proud of it.

Seemed OK to say something outright like this when I was 4, but somehow over the years I learned the need for ‘modesty’.

Especially if my life is in aged care. How should I feel about myself with the headlines screaming at me right now? Surely, it should be familiar by now that mostly we’ll be told about things that are wrong or things that can be ‘improved’. And yes, mistakes are made, but they are always reported as another horrible example of the poor care we provide for our elders.

I’m a chef and it would have been the easiest thing to hide in the misty kitchen among the pots and pans. But I’m also an activist, so I would like to very strongly suggest that we aged care people, stop being modest and shout out loud that we are great and have much to be proud about.

But beside us what else defines the great aged care that no one writes about?

Is it getting a ‘thumbs up’ from Jack who helped himself to the first time buffet breakfast and then went back for seconds? This is a man, who lives within the confusion of Dementia, came into a meal situation that made complete sense and gave him the dignity of independence and choice . . .

Or is it making formed texture-modified meals to make a difference for our most vulnerable residents . . . those with dysphagia and other eating difficulties because they too, deserve a beautiful meal. A meal that looks like it should . . . everything on the plate is recognisable for what it actually is . . . even if the texture is puree. But does it make any difference? I wasn’t really sure until Nurse Jenny turned up in the kitchen doorway with her hands on her hips one day and asked if I had heard about what happened on Saturday . . .

My first thought was, “Oh no, what now?”

In fact, she came to tell me that one of our residents who needed full assistance with her meals had picked up her own fork and started to eat her lunch . . . she knew exactly what was on her plate and she wanted to eat it.

I could only grin when she was walking away saying, “Same thing happened on Sunday too!”

Or can great aged care be beautiful Barbara who is a volunteer pastry cook in a home, making scrumptious cakes and biscuits. She also runs baking classes for residents and I was there one day when one of the ladies in her class simply said, “I feel like a woman again.”

Or maybe great aged care is the theme days Chefs plan, because they turn meals into an event. No national holiday required . . . any old excuse would do! It’s all about creating a totally different experience, without ever leaving the dining room. Food has that power . . . to instantly transport us somewhere we may never have been, but maybe always longed to see. Or maybe it’s some place that our residents always loved . . . but can no longer go. A trip to the beach with fish and chips is surely the definition of a great life in our Great Southern Land.

It could be a great loaf of freshly baked bread. We know the smell of freshly baked bread is enough to make anyone hungry. One day while having a chat with a CEO, I sort of mentioned the idea of putting a bread maker in the dining room. In my defense, at the time I had no idea that she was totally mad and . . . because next day she showed up with all 7 bread makers the Good Guys had. After that we had to institute bread-making classes to make use of them all. But before long a number of residents volunteered to be the bread bakers and they are they still happily burning their fingers.

Or great aged care can be just listening? One day, first week into a new project, I was summoned to attend a Residents Meeting. Ushered into the big room, someone shoved a microphone into my hand and there I was facing off a group of angry residents with a long list of grievances. Make no mistake about it; this was the stuff of the Spanish Inquisition. I left in tatters but determined to win them over. So the next meeting, I relocated everyone into a cosy lounge around a coffee table. Got rid of the microphone and raised my voice.

We had biscuits and made some Cocktails, thinking if all else failed at least I’d get the critics to drunk to complain. They didn’t. We conducted a good meeting and took lots of notes. Next time we met, I gave them a report on what was solved, what could not be done and why.

Eventually these meetings became less daunting. We now trusted each other and had a partnership approach to making their food and meal times great.

The lessons learned, don’t b******t your customers! Hear them and level with them about what is possible and what’s not. Once you make a promise, keep it. Remember that you are not better or smarter. You’re only younger.

Or great aged care maybe is something else entirely. Last year I worked at an aged care facility where I met Helen. When she learned that I was Hungarian by birth, she told me a story about eating Goulash in a Budapest Restaurant during a summer holiday many years before. As Helen’s story was unravelling, a good-looking waiter with an impressive moustache made his appearance . . . I got the picture. No wonder the Goulash was hot and spicy. I wanted Helen to relive a memory she cherished . . . so I built her a Time Machine. We had Goulash for lunch the next day and her joy was so beautiful I could touch it.

Chefs in aged care usually work in isolation from other Chefs, which was my initial reason for starting an aged care food blog on facebook. But Tibor’s Kitchen now has over 57,000 followers . . . from all over the world, sharing beautiful food ideas and creating a community of interest all for the benefit for our vulnerable clientele.

There is not a day goes by when I don’t receive dozens of messages from chefs, home carers and people who are doing great things in their aged care homes and you know, their residents are lucky to have them.

Although my narrative had to be in the first person, I’m not alone being great and proud and I wanted to write about them and to write about our world.

I think the future of aged care is looking great. Actually, I’m sure of it.

What do you have to say? Comment, share and like below.

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  1. Like Tibor, I see the wonderful work aged care workers do every day to make the day seamless for residents and management alike. There has recently been a media focus on the horrors of aged care – tough to read for family and staff. Government has reacted with a stick approach of punishing potential offenders through close scrutiny and naming and shaming.

    During a recent project, I spent the week immersing with the residents, care staff and catering staff. Walking in their shoes, experiencing life as they live and breath it. There is always compromise. Residents are put together as a community and share precious limited resources. I love the camaraderie and caring they do. While acknowledging limitations, they make the most of what they have and look out for each other.

    Staff are continually faced with multiple challenges at any time during their shift. They are endlessly making tough calls – should I leave this person and rush to help that person? Shall I delay sorting out that person because this person would be put at risk? A paperwork trail is essential to “prove” the quality of care. So far there is little digitalisation by design to automatically capture, record and analyse the myriad tasks. Instead, the paperwork has become the most important task carried out, eating into precious care resources and time.

    I see staff buckling under increasing responsibility, complexity, scrutiny. Consequences I see include poor health choices, depression, workers comp, fatigue and mistakes made or risk overlooked. For many, they truly love the people they care for and cant afford to leave. It hurts them when they must decide who they ignore, to assist someone else.

    While immersing in projects, I see numerous magic moments of tender loving care between staff and residents and each other. I also see the seamless harmonious interaction to get a good outcome for their residents. Often management are unaware of the quality outcome that is the result of staff pitching in together to keep the place running, residents safe and the facility out of the headlines.

    Spending a week onsite gathering information has certainly given me an appreciation of a fast-paced world that is completely foreign to the majority of us. Like Tibor, I also see great being done every day. It is truly magic and where our future lies.


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