by Arthur Silva, MBA Senior Vice President of Operations, Sodexo Seniors North America


Overcoming challenges and encouraging staff and residents.

During Skilled Nursing Week, we're examining the needs of these vital Senior Living communities. Recently I had the opportunity to participate on a virtual panel discussion hosted by Food Management*. Along with management from several senior living communities around the country, we discussed the challenges facing senior living as we look to reopen dining in our facilities. The onslaught of the pandemic drastically changed how many of our dining spaces function – or reduced their functionality altogether. As we look forward, we are confident that, equipped with vaccinations, the expertise of our global team, and recommendations from state and federal regulations, we will be able to continue to innovate and create those special moments for seniors.

The reality is that, historically, programming has not been proportionately focused in skilled nursing care as in other types of senior living communities. Skilled nursing care often concentrates on the devoted attention of the professionals who deliver dedicated services and therapy. But we must bring more to the table for skilled nursing and memory care.  From the past twelve months of innovating and adapting in lower-risk communities, we are empowered to encourage and support our partners to grow and optimize skilled nursing communities as well – including reopening dining rooms and other venues.


How Are Residents Faring?

Overall, residents are fairly evenly divided on their hesitation to participate in traditional dining  as they were familiar with prior to the pandemic. We’re seeing about 50% to 80% of residents are comfortable to dine in dining rooms. However, the convenience of meal delivery and the technical step of making dining room reservations has kept some residents away.

Our strategies for encouraging their comfort are founded on innovative programming and creative usage of space. We’re working with clients to assess under-utilized space that can be converted to supplemental dining rooms. Those with the ability to expand have done so by creating all-new venues.

Unlike other industries during the pandemic, our business never ceased. In fact, we continued to hire staff through the health crisis in order to support our seniors. The linchpin has been training.


Our Key Asset: Talent

Recruiting and retaining talent has been both our number one challenge and our number one priority. Before the pandemic, recruiting for skilled nursing and other communities was already shifting to suit the preferences of our candidates. In the “gig economy” staff are seeking flexible schedules and other benefits that we’re making available to them. Now, with the pandemic, we’re also providing the crucial factor of unique training and development opportunities.

Normal customer service and food service training notwithstanding, the new etiquette of masks and physical distancing – along with increased cleaning and disinfecting – add more elements to our training. Residents can be reassured knowing our staff are specially trained to respond to resident requests and care for unique needs brought on by the pandemic.

We were also fortunate to be able to move employees and resources over from other divisions of Sodexo. When local corporate locations, government site or university shut down, we have been able to transfer staff to senior living sites in the same geography.

This is also a unique time for culinary innovation. Senior living presents a terrific opportunity to recruit up and coming chefs and recent culinary school graduates, who can expect job security and creativity with the ever-increasing discerning palates of senior residents.


Creative Programming and Use of Space

Beyond the plexiglass barriers and the meal delivery solutions, we know that senior living dining is about the special moments we create for residents. The pandemic has only encouraged us to get creative and bring more of those special moments in different ways. Virtual and in-person happy hours are managed within the community to keep café capacity at a minimum. Special menus in the dining rooms are encouraging hesitant residents to join us. And looking at the grounds for opportunities for additional space has been effective in every community where we’ve been able to open a new venue.

The expectation for innovation will continue. And we must continue to adapt to meet the demand of our residents, which is often precisely what keeps our staff engaged and motivated to create these special moments.

This won’t be the last major health crisis – and likely not in our lifetime. So, remaining agile and prepared to pivot, leveraging Sodexo’s robust network and expertise, we continue to move senior living forward.


*Register to watch the Food Management webinar recording.


May 14, 2021

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