We’re so tickled that Lida Saunders of Austin, Texas’ Foodie DeLites Private Chef Service has written a truly resource-filled post for us this week about cooking for elders.

If you are a private/personal chef and have the opportunity to cook for clients who are 60 and older, you will have a very satisfying experience, very appreciative audience and will be providing a needed service to folks who no longer wish to or can cook for themselves.

The challenges you face will open doors to new ideas and ways of viewing flavors and will increase your marketability and increased business, I assure you.

I have been a private/personal chef for 7 years and have also worked as a chef in two assisted living organizations. In both positions I was allowed to develop menus and be creative with flavors and seasonings with much success. And yes there were special diets and health conditions I had to consider in preparing food for residents. I even learned to make tasty pureed food for several residents who had swallowing issues.

I have also had the pleasure of privately cooking for seven elderly clients ranging in age from 85 to 98. Two of these clients had some dementia but the others were all people who had no cognitive issues. And they still enjoyed good, tasty food.

Now, I will tell you, that you do need to sit down with the client and ask a lot of questions, such as their favorite foods currently, flavors, spices they like and don’t like. And, of course, ask about food allergies and doctors orders for dietary exclusions such as salt and sugar.

Then I would suggest coming up with a list of meals they might be interested in and just see if your suggestions meet their approval. Don’t take offense if they don’t like what you have suggested. This is a trial and error process. Be patient and view this process as kinda like asking a child what they want to eat. And sometimes the client will just say, “oh anything you want to make.” Believe me, that will not work. You really need to find out truly what meals they have really enjoyed perhaps when they went out to eat. Otherwise you will be cooking in the dark and the client may be very disappointed and will tell you so.

However, truly, if you can perk up someone’s taste buds and provide them with an enjoyable meal, you will reap wonderful rewards and praises galore. You’ll become “a culinary rock star”!

So here are some tips to consider, but as the wonderful, talented chef you are, you will create, inspire and cook fabulous dishes.

  • Enhance the flavor: Spices can boost the flavor of a food but many elderly people cannot tolerate them. If spices don’t bother your gastrointestinal system, enjoy! Avoid salt, especially if you suffer from high blood pressure. Simulated flavors, like bacon or cheese, can be added to soups and vegetables to make them more palatable. Try acidic flavors like lemon to boost the flow of saliva.
  • Enhance the aroma: Season chicken, beef and fish using low-sodium marinades; for example, chicken can be marinated in chicken flavor to intensify its aroma.
  • Add variety: Avoid sensory fatigue by having a variety of foods and textures on your plate. Then try switching from item to item between bites to keep your taste buds firing.
  • Play with temperature: Food that’s too hot or too cold may not be tasted as thoroughly; try varying the temperature to maximize food’s flavor.

There are many factors beyond pure taste that affect how much we enjoy our food. Experiment with presentation and even bite size to maximize your eating enjoyment as you age.

The Physiology of Taste and Smell as We Age

Now, for your reading pleasure, I have done some research and included below a little education on the physiology of taste and smell as we age (should you want to really understand what is going on about our taste and “smellology”):

Taste and Aging: First, a bit of taste physiology: the raised bumps, or taste papillae, you see when you stick out your tongue in the mirror are made up of specialized epithelial cells. Arranged around and inside these are your taste buds, only visible with the help of a microscope. The average person has about 4,600 taste buds on their tongue. In addition, taste buds can be found on the roof of the mouth, in the esophagus and at the back of the throat. They respond to five basic taste stimuli: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and the more recently recognized “umami,” the savory flavors of certain amino acids.

Taste receptors are heroes in the world of cell turnover, regenerating about every 10 days. With age, though, it’s believed that taste buds simply aren’t reproduced at the same rate. And fewer taste buds translated into diminished flavor perception. Cell membranes, the which transmit signals from the taste buds to the brain, also change with time and become less effective.

Some older people hang on to their sense of taste with little decline. Others, especially those suffering from dry mouth or who are taking certain medications, such as antihistamines or antidepressants, may lose much of their taste perception. Certain conditions, such as stroke, Bell’s palsy, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and depression, can also cause a loss or altering of taste.

Even tooth extractions can do damage to the nerves that transmit taste sensation to the brain.

Smell and Aging: Sensory cells within the nose transmit olfactory, or smell, messages to the brain. Over time, these smell receptors, like those for taste, stop regenerating as rapidly. They’re also more vulnerable to damage by environmental contaminants like air pollution, smoking, and microbes. Diseases like stroke, epilepsy, and various medications can also affect how smell is perceived by the brain. How well we smell also plays a large role in what we taste. It is probably a dwindling sense of smell, or anosmia that accounts for most changes in taste with age.

One large study in Wisconsin found that almost two-thirds of people between the ages of 80 and 97 had some form of smell impairment. The researchers concluded that as many as 14 million older adults in the United States have a diminished sense of smell.

Consequences: At the minor end, a loss of taste perception can make a dinner out less enjoyable. But for the elderly, malnutrition is a real danger, either from eating less or making less nutritious choices.

People whose sensitivity to salt drops may add too much salt to their food, a potential risk if they have high blood pressure.

A reduced sensitivity to sweetness is a danger for diabetics if they add extra sugar to compensate. In addition, an altered sense of taste can make old favorites, like fruits and vegetables, less appealing. This has been shown to erode immunity to disease, even when the calories consumed remain the same.

Sources:

Cecile L. Phan, Jodi L. Kashmere, Sanjay Kalra. “Unilateral Atrophy of Fungiform Papillae Associated with Lingual Nerve Injury”. The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences, Volume 33, Number 4 / November 2006.

Claire Murphy, Ph.D.; Carla R. Schubert, MS; Karen J. Cruickshanks, Ph.D.; Barbara E. K. Klein, MD, MPH; Ronald Klein, MD, MPH; David M. Nondahl, MS.” Prevalence of Olfactory Impairment in Older Adults.” JAMA. 2002;288(18):2307-2312. doi: 10.1001/jama.288.18.2307.

Cowart, B. J. Relationships between Taste and Smell across the Adult Life Span. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 561: 39-55. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1989.tb20968.x (personal communication with author)

Schiffman, S. “Taste and Smell Losses in Normal Aging and Disease.” JAMA. 1997;278(16):1357-1362. doi: 10.1001/jama.1997.03550160077042

What has been your experience in cooking for elders? What have you found to be the most challenging issues and the greatest joys?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!

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