If we didn’t take seconds when my Grandma Jo offered, her classic response was, “Fine, I guess I won’t make this meal again.” She consistently told us we were too skinny. And at times, if we didn’t want to try something, she would shame us by saying, “Good, more for the rest of us.” The family all knew that food was love when it came to Grandma Jo.
It was almost the opposite with my other grandmother. Grandma Gladys didn’t like to eat. She had nearly rotten teeth! She liked saltines with butter, pie at the local post office cafeteria, and considered a glass of milk to be dinner. As a little girl, I preferred the ease of enjoying decadent butter (we used margarine growing up) on salty crackers to fighting for Grandma Jo’s love by overeating.
Meal times in senior housing are daily events. Sometimes the food is good, but most often, adult children hear regular complaints about institutional food—there’s too much, it’s over cooked, it’s underdone, it’s too fancy, etc. Years ago I asked a group of elder care specialists what they would want if they lived in senior housing. Good coffee was the answer; Starbucks on every floor! I see mealtimes in senior housing from both sides. As a manager, it’s challenging (and costly) to have both flexible eating times and a wide variety. Obviously it’s much easier to “feed the masses” in restricted time frames with a set menu.
For some, mealtimes are the only time they leave their room or apartment. It’s community time, time for sharing during a meal. Most people agree that it’s much more enjoyable to make food for two versus one. But what if you’re caring for someone who can’t express their food wishes? I often wonder about my friend with YOAD (Young Onset Alzheimer’s). One time when I was with him, I asked, “Do you want a Peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” and his eyes lit up and he shook his head and said, “yes,” while grinning.
If food is love, then while we care for someone, we need to remember their history of likes and dislikes. For some folks, Cheerios can be dinner, once in a while. Not every meal is a success. Sometimes I burn a meal and resort to a can of soup or a simple salad. That’s okay, too.
One of the hardest things to give up is food—both for your loved one and for you. In the last days of my mom’s life, she was not interested in food. My sister tried desperately to get her to eat, until the Hospice nurse said, “She really doesn’t need to eat….” There are times when not eating, but rather sitting with a loved one, is filling enough.
This piece originally appeared in Girlfriend’s Magazine earlier this summer.