Being older has never been so popular. More than 55 million Americans are age 65 or older, making up a higher percentage of the US population than ever before.
Baby boomers are a big part of this: every day through 2030, 10,000 of them will turn 65, causing a “silver tsunami” of change in the senior housing industry.
Food plays an important role: many of today’s contenders have traveled more and ate better than previous generations. The three-meal concept is giving way to around-the-clock availability. Upscale and organic options like roasted apple and grilled brie and gourmet burgers are replacing mainstays of the seniors’ communities menu like pea soup and meatloaf.
That might sound like an upgrade, but many people will appreciate a more varied menu. More than 13% of today’s US seniors were born in other countries. Many moved to America decades ago – and people from all over the world like to eat varied dishes. And yet, your culture’s traditional foods often remain staples of what you cook and eat. So what are the options if you want to change where you live – by moving into independent or assisted living community – but not what you eat?
Many senior communities offer a weekly international food theme, such as Taco Tuesday or Italian Night. But most of the menu is still traditional western. This works for most, but not all.
“Indian food is so important to our residents that when they reach the assisted living stage, no one moves out because they’ll have to contend with mashed potatoes and green bean casserole,” said Iggy Ignatius, chairman and founder of ShantiNiketan Retirement Communities in Tavares, FL. “It wouldn’t be jazzed up in the Indian way.”
While planning a second career in social work, Ignatius noted that many Native Americans who moved to America in the ’70s and ’80s did not want to retire to India and leave their children and grandchildren behind.
“There were many aging communities in America, but no Indian aging communities. They served food but not Indian food,” says Ignatius. “I saw that as a niche and thought if I started something like this, maybe it would be my social work.”
Although not marketed as an Indian-only community, 100% of the residents in the community of 300 households are Indian. Many of them are vegetarians for religious or cultural reasons. As an optional complement to accommodation, ShantiNiketan offers a food club. An advisory board creates the menu and two chefs prepare the dishes. Lunch might be mixed dal (lentil stew) with cabbage, potatoes, green beans, salad, roti (a type of flatbread), rice, yogurt and pickles. Dinner options include uttapam (pancakes made with fermented lentil rice batter), chole puri (a chickpea dish), and radga patties (potatoes, white peas, and cilantro).
ShantiNiketan’s Food Club was an important factor in the decision-making process of Leela Shah, who came to America from central India for college in the early 1960’s and made a life and family here with her husband Atul.
“When we first came to America and adapted to Western cuisine, our weekly diet included American food, but mostly we eat Indian,” she says. “I’ve worked very hard all these years and I wanted the opportunity to cook or not cook if I wanted to in our later years.”
With backgrounds in pharmaceutical chemistry, the Shahs were also concerned about nutrition.
“There is fancier food in other communities, but nutrition is important to us, and here we can eat balanced, healthy and affordable Indian food for everyday use,” she says. “If it’s not spiced the way we like, we’ll bring our own black or red pepper to spice it up.”
Diversity is always on the menu at Priya Living, an Indian-inspired independent living community with four locations near Native American communities in California and two more in Michigan and Texas.
Where many senior communities have a central clubhouse for dining, Priya Living has a “marketplace” open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. that offers a chai bar, hot bar, chilled take-out area, and supplies that you buy and prepare can in your room. It’s primarily, but not exclusively, vegetarian Indian food, with some chicken, lamb, and goat dishes, and international theme days that include Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and Indochinese cuisine.
“Besides price and layout, the number one question we get is, ‘What kind of food do you serve?’ says Anjan Mitra, head of innovation at Priya Living and former founder and CEO of Dosa, a family-loved Indian restaurant in San Francisco. “The Indian cooking style is very different. It’s not uncommon for us to use 15 different spices in one dish, but they have to work together. People invest in the food – they want it to be familiar – but they don’t invest more in cooking it.”
As a teenager, Yuji Ishikata took care of his aging grandmother. Once a wonderful cook, she spent her final years eating prepared Japanese home cooking similar to what Ishikata now does for other seniors as Executive Chef of the Nutrition Program at J-Sei, a Nikkei cultural organization in the East Bay area of San Francisco. prepared.
In addition to the Japanese meals served in their 14-bed dorm, J-Sei offers home delivery lunches Monday through Friday for people 60 and older in their delivery area who can’t shop or cook their own meals.
“Losing contact with the Japanese food they’ve eaten their entire lives would be like losing their identity,” says Ishikata. “Whatever else is changing around them, food offers comfort, nostalgia and familiarity.”
Ishikata ships around 150 meals each weekday from a monthly set menu that includes chicken teriyaki with broccoli and unagi donburi or eel on rice, Kazue Nakahara’s favorite dish.
For Nakahara, 76, a third-generation Japanese-American, J-Sei’s food delivery eliminates the large amount of preparation and “fuss” she says Japanese food requires over Western fare like spaghetti and meatballs.
But her real motivation is comfort: Nakahara’s Japanese-born husband Hidetaka, 80, has become more drawn to his childhood foods as he’s aged.
“Before he made fried eggs and bacon for breakfast. Now he prefers onigiri or rice balls and some miso,” she says. “The older he gets, the more Japanese he becomes.”