These days walking into the Carnegie Commons at the Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center is like stepping into an Arhaus catalog. Upon entering the dining area, your senses are enticed. To the left is an open kitchen, complete with stainless steel appliances and a mosaic backsplash. To the side is a 24-hour station with fresh fruit and beverages. Throughout the space are windows emitting sunlight against freshly painted walls. Beautiful fixtures adorn the ceiling, and an elegant chandelier hangs above.
But of all the sights the dining room bears, most striking is the large wooden harvest table. Situated in the middle of the dining area, it is this spot that facilitates the objective.
“They put this table in, and we became a family,” said Hope Leyton, a resident at Charles Morris.
Roughly a year and a half ago, Deborah Winn-Horvitz, president and CEO of the Jewish Association on Aging, set out to change the resident experience. Her intention was not just to replace cold food and institutional trays, but also to undertake a reformation. She did so, she explained, by implementing a person-centered dining program.
“We wanted to do something significant, give the residents more independence and control over their choices,” said Winn-Horvitz. “It’s a culture change; it’s so much more than about the food.”
Winn-Horvitz’s new dining program grants residents increased eating options. Central to the program is that made-to-order entrees are prepared on-site, within view of the residents. Additionally, the program enables staff to wait on each resident, which increases familiarity between the parties.
According to Winn-Horvitz, this collective process nets significant benefit by reducing food waste and boosting staff morale.
Under the previous model, meals were prepared in an industrial kitchen downstairs. Food was then placed on trays and sent up to residents. Often, when the trays arrived, meals were cold or at best lukewarm. Given the undesirable temperature of the food, much of it was left untouched and discarded. Trays were then collected by staff, returned to the kitchen, and the process began again at the next meal.
Understandably, the routine was less than ideal for residents and staff.
“Previously, we had a lot of staff preparing trays with no idea who was on the other end,” said Winn-Horvitz. “Now, we’re doing preparations and serving on the floor. It’s a big satisfier for the staff.”
Delia Rivera, a food service worker and hostess of the Carnegie Commons, has enjoyed getting to know the residents and their particular tastes. She also explained that the residents are savoring the experience.
“They love it, and get to interact and get to know one another,” she said. “It beats staying in their rooms with plastic trays.”
“They look forward to coming in, sitting together,” added Lisa Earnest, a speech language pathologist. “[There is] hot fresh food, not cold food on a tray.”
Implementing the program required Winn-Horvitz to work with multiple parties, including a planning committee, architects, the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh and numerous government agencies. Moving forward, she believes that the process can be expedited for other JAA units. “The first one took one year to get going. It should take three to six months to get each new unit going.”
County funds, grants, and individual donations paid for the first unit. A new $330,000 grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation will support future efforts with the dining program.
In total, Winn-Horvitz estimates that the cost for all five units at JAA’s facility will be $1 million, a figure she said will cover construction, equipment, architectural services, engineering and permit fees.
When the process is complete, it will be a “game-changer,” said Winn-Horvitz.
For residents in the Carnegie Commons, the game has already been changed.
“I know about group living and I can’t tell you how good this is,” said Marie Matthews.
“When they send me home I’m coming back here for breakfast,” added Leyton. “The dippy eggs, they’re unbelievable.”
Standing near the wooden harvest table, Winn-Horvitz chuckled when recalling that a resident recently told her, “My coffee is finally like my women, hot.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.