Being older has never been so popular. More than 55 million Americans are 65 and up and make up a higher percentage of the U.S. population than ever before.
Baby boomers are a huge part of it: Every day, 10,000 of them turn 65 until 2030, causing a “silver tsunami” of changes in the senior living industry.
Food plays an important role: Many of today’s prospective residents have traveled more and eaten better than earlier generations. The three-meals-a-day concept is giving way to all-hours availability. Upscale and organic options like roasted apple and brie grilled cheese and gourmet burgers are replacing senior communities’ menu mainstays like split pea soup and meatloaf.
That may sound like an upgrade, but a lot of people might appreciate a more diverse menu. More than 13% of today’s U.S. seniors were born in other countries. Many moved to America decades ago – and people from all over the world enjoy eating a wide variety of dishes. And yet, the traditional foods of your culture often remain staples of what you cook and eat. So what are the options if you might want to change where you live -- by moving to an independent or assisted living community -- but not what you eat?
More Roti, Less Mashed Potatoes
Many senior communities offer a weekly international food theme, like Taco Tuesday or Italian night. But the majority of the menu is still traditionally Western. That works for most, but not everyone.
“Indian food is so important to our residents that, when they reach the assisted living stage, nobody moves out because they’d have to contend with mashed potatoes and green bean casserole,” says Iggy Ignatius, chairman and founder of ShantiNiketan Retirement Communities in Tavares, FL. “It wouldn’t be spiced up the Indian way.”
While scoping out a second career in social work, Ignatius noticed that many fellow Indians who’d moved to America in the '70s and '80s didn’t want to retire to India and leave their children and grandchildren behind.
“There were a lot of retirement communities in America, but no Indian retirement communities. They served food, but not Indian food,” Ignatius says. “I saw that as a niche and thought, if I started something like that, maybe it’d be my social work.”
Though it’s not marketed as an exclusively Indian community, 100% of the residents in the 300-home community are Indian. Of those, many are vegetarians for religious or cultural reasons. As an optional add-on to housing, ShantiNiketan offers a food club. A board of advisors creates the menu and two cooks 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 (pancake made with fermented lentil rice batter), chole puri (a chickpea dish) and radga (potato, white peas, and cilantro) patties.
ShantiNiketan’s Food Club was a major factor in the decision-making process for Leela Shah, who came to America from central India in the early 1960s for college and built a life and family here with her husband, Atul.
“When we first came to America and adjusted to Western cuisine, our weekly diet included American food, but mostly we eat Indian,” she says. “I worked very hard all those years and wanted the option 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’s fancier food in other communities, but nutrition is important to us and here we can eat everyday Indian food that’s balanced, healthy, and affordable,” she says. “If it’s not spiced the way we like it, we bring our own black or red pepper to make it hot.”
Keeping It Spicy
Diversity is always on the menu at Priya Living, an Indian-inspired independent living community with four locations near Indian communities in California, and two more planned in Michigan and Texas.
Where many senior communities have a central clubhouse for dining, Priya Living has a “marketplace” that’s open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and offers a chai bar, hot bar, refrigerated grab-and-go section, and provisions you can purchase and cook in your room. It’s mostly, but not exclusively, vegetarian Indian food, with some chicken, lamb, and goat options and themed international days that include Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and Indo-Chinese cuisines.
“Besides the price and layout, the number one question we get is, ‘What kind of food do you serve?” says Anjan Mitra, Priya Living’s head of innovation and former founder and CEO of Dosa, a family popular Indian restaurant in San Francisco. “The Indian style of cooking is very different. It’s not uncommon for us to use 15 different spices in a dish, but they have to work with each other. People are invested in the food -- they want it to be familiar -- but they’re not invested in cooking it anymore.”
An Issue of Identity
As a teenager, Yuji Ishikata cared for his aging grandmother. Once a wonderful cook, she spent her final years eating prepared homestyle Japanese meals similar to what Ishikata now makes for other seniors as the chef of the nutrition program at J-Sei, a Nikkei cultural organization in San Francisco’s East Bay area.
In addition to Japanese meals served at their 14-bed residence facility, J-Sei offers home-delivered lunches Monday through Friday to people 60 or older in their delivery area who can’t shop for or prepare their own meals.
“Losing touch with the Japanese food they’ve eaten their entire lives would be like losing their identity,” Ishikata says. “Whatever else is changing around them, food offers comfort, nostalgia, and familiarity.”
Ishikata sends out around 150 meals every weekday from a set monthly menu that includes chicken teriyaki with broccoli and unagi donburi, or eel over rice, Kazue Nakahara’s favorite dish.
For Nakahara, 76, who’s third-generation Japanese-American, J-Sei’s meal delivery eliminates the large amount of preparation and “fuss” she says Japanese food requires above Western dishes like spaghetti and meatballs.
But her real motivation is comfort: Nakahara’s Japanese-born husband, Hidetaka, 80, has gravitated more to the food of his childhood as he’s aged.
“Before he’d make a fried egg and bacon for breakfast. Now he prefers onigiri, or rice balls, and some miso,” she says. “The older he gets, the more Japanese he gets.”