May 2003 Edition
Healthcare: In a Nutshell - Congregate Meal Programs

by Constance Menger, M.B.A., R.D.

Canadian Nursing Home

Most of us are familiar with the concept 'Meals-on-Wheels' whereby institutional meals are prepared, packaged and then transported by volunteers to elderly recipients in the community. The benefits of Meals-on-Wheels to household seniors are a well-balanced meal and a brief, but nevertheless, important social experience.

Congregate Meal Programs, on the other hand, involve bringing guests into a nursing home facility for a noon or evening meal and sometimes participate in activities which frequently follow the meal. These meal programs, among other names, have also been called 'Wheels-to-Meals' programs. Congregate meal programs provide benefits to community-living seniors that surpass the solitary eating of a regular meal. With a congregate meal program in place, clients of a program can look forward to a regular outing, a nutritious, hot meal and an afternoon or early evening activity provided by activation personnel. Congregate meals, therefore, promote an aspect of quality living in that it supports some of the underlying determinants of health such as nutrition, exercise, social support and the opportunity for emotional growth.

In terms of nutrition, it has been found that in older adults who consumed a congregate meal, the total daily intake was higher in all nutrients compared with non-participants. Those who regularly attended congregate meals at a nursing home had higher calcium and vitamin C intakes that satisfied daily requirements, than those who did not attend a similar meal program.

The benefits of a congregate meal program to a nursing home/long term care facility include increased community contact, a favourable corporate image and enhanced marketing capabilities. Congregate meal clients, for example, are provided with first hand experience of the facility’s operations and care philosophy, and should they or another acquaintance find it necessary in the future to select a facility, the already established familiarity bodes well for their placement choice. Residents benefit by making new acquaintances or perhaps meeting old friends again. Also depending on the motivation and abilities of the congregate meal clients, they can conceivably become valued volunteers.

A congregate meal program need not be a complex undertaking. To start, a table for four would suffice, and if successful, the seating capacity could be expanded. Four extra meals will probably be insignificant in terms of food production and labour costs; in any case, the revenue generated should offset any additional costs incurred.

The need for such programs is high. A study in Toronto found that 59% of independently living seniors were classified as being at nutritional risk. The impact that a regular congregate meal program can have on the community in the area surrounding the facility is tremendous. Long term care facilities are already set up to provide for a variety of specialized nutrition needs. It is up to the long term care sector to create and market such programs to the independent elderly living in the community. The costs are minimal and the benefits are far reaching. ยจ