With the increasing interest in nutrition over the past few years, it’s no surprise that more and more people are examining the effects that their diets have on their health and well-being. This current trend has made dining in senior living communities one of the top items on the checklist for older adults when choosing their new home, especially as coronavirus-related restrictions in communities loosen up.

Today’s senior living residents care about what they eat and want to ensure that, wherever they choose to live, they are able to follow a specific diet or eating pattern that include options such as vegetarian, vegan, lactose-free, gluten-free and others. Operators are being challenged to do more in the way of customized dining. The top providers in the industry are setting themselves apart with broader menu options that focus on these nutrition choices.

As the pandemic subsides and the demand for senior living communities continues to increase (thus creating a highly competitive market), the ability to meet the dietary needs and wants of prospective residents will be a differentiator in their decision-making process.

Approximately 6% to 7% of Americans have celiac disease and other forms of gluten sensitivity, and the diagnosis of gluten sensitivity is on the rise. Many older adults already are embracing a gluten-free lifestyle for health reasons. The number of senior living communities offering validated gluten-free programs currently is limited, however, so senior living communities have an untapped opportunity to attract prospective residents with gluten-free dining options.

Striving for better health

Symptoms related to gluten intolerance can resemble those of other ailments common in older adults, and signs of discomfort related to gluten consumption often are attributed to the aging process. Therefore, celiac disease often is diagnosed at lower rates in older adults than in younger ones. The result is that many seniors who might benefit from a gluten-free diet go undetected.

Balancing residents’ desires for independence with dietary restrictions can be challenging, but communities’ adhering to medical advice by offering gluten-free options is important for health and liability reasons.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that can lead to other health problems if left untreated. Adopting a gluten-free diet can be a top line of defense against symptoms associated with the condition. In these times, another consideration is that residents who have celiac disease also may be more susceptible to COVID-19, because the virus poses a higher risk of death or serious health complications for older adults and people with autoimmune conditions.

Catering to the dietary preferences and needs of family members and other visitors, as well as staff members, may offer a competitive advantage as well.

What to consider when offering gluten-free

Although senior living communities differ from restaurants in that they serve a steady clientele, they should follow similar protocols for storing gluten-free ingredients, sanitizing prep stations and preventing cross-contact. Staff members also can promote safety by color-coding gluten-free menu items or printing a dedicated gluten-free menu. Keeping a photograph of each resident in the kitchen, along with a list of dietary restrictions, can help staff members get to know senior residents and their needs.

Tracking what residents eat also is important, particularly when someone with celiac disease goes against medical advice and orders a dish that contains gluten. Documenting that you informed a resident about the risks of gluten consumption can demonstrate that you made a diligent effort to follow medical advice, in the event of an illness or dispute.

Validating your community’s gluten-free program is another way to reassure prospective residents that you adhere to best practices for food handling and preventing cross-contact. The validation auditing process follows the exact same process as when restaurants are validated: an auditor will visit your kitchens and meet with you and your staff members to ensure that best practices are being followed, and he or she also will offer advice. Once your community is validated, you can display the validation logo on your website and in marketing materials.   

Honoring preferences reaps benefits

As more Americans reach retirement age, demand for gluten-free dining options will continue to grow. Operators that offer gluten-free menus may gain a competitive edge over those that do not. For upscale communities, employing a chef who creates gourmet gluten-free dishes can be a selling point. Prospective residents often are willing to pay more and relocate for a community that offers a variety of different amenities such as gluten-free dining.

With the proper research and preparation, senior living communities can honor the dietary restrictions of residents, guests and staff members, promote the independence and well-being of older adults and have a point of differentiation from other senior living communities — which makes offering the option of a gluten-free menu a winning combination for everybody concerned.

Lindsey Yeakle is the Gluten-Free Food Service program manager, food safety, for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group. Yeakle has a culinary history working at four-star and four-diamond-rated restaurants. A celiac disease diagnosis encouraged her to attend culinary school at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts. In 2016, Yeakle decided to use her background and education to help the gluten-free community by working with GIG.