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Breaking bread with seniors has mental health benefits

Sharing mealtimes with seniors can have tremendous health benefits for them. But that has gotten more challenging to do during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Multi-generational meals have increasingly become a thing of the past, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as seniors try to limit their social interactions so they don't get sick.

Sitting around the dinner table sharing conversations might seem routine, but for seniors on their own, that isn’t always possible — especially through the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, when vulnerable populations have been advised to curtail or avoid social interactions to reduce their chances of getting sick.

That can have significant impacts on their physical and mental well-being, says Mandi Strickland, the director of care for Home Instead, a company that provides support services for seniors and their families in the Tri-Cities, New Westminster and the Ridge Meadows area.

Strickland said a survey conducted by her company’s network of providers across North America found seniors who aren’t able to share their meals with friends or family can skip up to four of those meals a week.

That can have implications on seniors’ nutritional health, as well as their mental well-being, she said.

“It’s harder to cook for yourself.”

Strickland said the COVID-19 pandemic has really shone a light on the importance of interactions that many of us may have taken for granted, like sitting down with someone at mealtime and sharing stories of the day just passed.

“When we start to talk, we’re comfortable. The dialogue starts to happen,” she said, adding that can extend to the time when a meal is prepared as well as during cleanup.

Dropping off a bag of takeout just isn’t the same as pulling seasonings from the pantry, popping something in the oven, setting out the tableware and cutlery.

Strickland said seniors want to be part of the process.

“Everybody wants to feel included and useful,” she said. “Being able to smell the chicken in the oven, hear the clinking of the spoon against the pot, it’s all about memories and creating a routine.”

Strickland said while some families have gotten creative, like scheduling virtual Zoom gatherings with loved ones at mealtime, that isn’t always possible.

Companies like hers can fill the gap, by scheduling visits from support workers to help prepare meals and check clients are eating properly. But sometimes the solution can be as simple as a family member timing their visit or phone call to coincide with the lunch or dinner hour.

“It’s just a moment,” Strickland said. “It triggers happy memories.”

• Home Instead has created an online portal of recipes, tips and resources to help seniors and their families make healthier choices and spend time together by preparing and sharing nutritious meals.