MorningStar Senior Living: Where food and memory go hand in hand

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Senior living FSDs face impossible competition: residents’ memories of meals from their lives before. Who could contend with mom’s meatloaf, or with recollections of the whole family gathered around the dinner table on Sunday nights?

MorningStar Senior Living understands there is no comparison, explains VP of Culinary Operations Michael DeGiovanni. Instead, it embraces food as memory of a life well lived—and staffers work hard to create meals worthy of new memories that engender a sense of community.

“They have a whole new selection of friends now, a whole new life, and that can take some getting used to,” DeGiovanni says. “We aim to be a place where their families want to come be a part of this, to help us create new memories. I always say we’re not in the senior living business—we’re in the hospitality business.”

That’s why MorningStar, which is based in Denver with facilities across the country, focuses on good old scratch cooking. Plus, each community develops its own menu according to classic local flavors. A chicken dish in Albuquerque, N.M., might feature green chilies, while the same entree in Billings, Mont., might be served with Buffalo sauce “to play into those memories the folks there have of meals growing up,” DeGiovanni says.

The idea of food as memory is particularly important for the 20% of all MorningStar residents living in Memory Care units, receiving special care due to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Twice monthly, MorningStar pushes dining room tables together to create a communal space and invites families of Memory Care residents to join a family-style meal.

“Something about those platters going around the table just encourages that happy conversation,” DeGiovanni says.

Finding fun in the everyday

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The sense of family and desire to create new memories stretches beyond Memory Care to include all MorningStar residents and communities (35% of residents are housed in independent living, and 45% are in assisted living). The key to creating memories, says Jim Carlson, executive chef at MorningStar’s Billings community, is simple: Make it fun.

“It’s serious work that we do, but if you can’t make it fun, you’re not going to have moments worth remembering—and that is what creates the sense of community,” Carlson says.

He thinks of life at MorningStar “like a cruise ship: Every day, every meal, has to be an event.” Sometimes that means planning a Hank Williams soundtrack to accompany dinner. Or it could be an unrelated event that needs spicing up: Carlson recently planned a buffet spread to greet residents when they returned inside after an evacuation drill. And other times, it’s all about the spectacle.

“I’ve dressed in so many outfits over the years, I can’t even count,” Carlson says, laughing. “I’ve been Yankee Doodle Dandy on July 4. Or dressed in a coconut bra and a grass skirt, parading a hog around the room. It’s all about bringing the fun to the residents.”

A spiritual approach

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MorningStar’s mentality goes far beyond mere meal planning, and the team is heavily focused on hiring and training staffers who fit that culture. In 2013, MorningStar launched its Radiance program, a set of service standards that “celebrates an attitude of selflessness that issues from a deep and sincere place, like a beam of light.” The program provides the framework for all parts of MorningStar life, from interpersonal communication to those spontaneous surprises.

“We aren’t afraid to say our company is all about God,” says DeGiovanni, whose email signature reads “Soli Deo Gloria,” Latin for Glory to God Alone. “We honor the faiths of all of our staffers and residents. But we believe we are all servants of God and we are a company of servants’ hearts. We honor others and ensure they know how valuable they are.”

Listening—really listening—to people is an excellent way to honor and value them, DeGiovanni says. Beyond collecting feedback from staffers, listening to residents is his top tip for switching up the menu and ensuring it will delight diners.

“Just sit down and listen to where they’ve lived, where they’ve traveled,” DeGiovanni says. “A lot of folks now living with us have traveled quite a bit more than the ones before.” Find out what residents liked or didn’t like on those trips, or growing up, he suggests, and incorporate that feedback into menu items.

“If they loved a certain entree item or dessert and you add it to the menu, acknowledging them for the idea, I can guarantee that resident is going to be just thrilled,” DeGiovanni says. “It’s a simple way to make their day. It’s fun. And that’s what it’s all about.”

Meet the FSD: Michael DeGiovanni


Vice President of Culinary Operations, MorningStar

Q: What are your goals for next year?
A: Our chefs are being encouraged to get out and demonstrate to the residents more. If you’re making banana flambee, go out there and show how you’re lighting that thing on fire! In one of our new builds, we have a pizza oven where residents can watch pizza or bread as it’s baking.

Q: How does that apply to Memory Care?
A: We’re working on developing more finger foods, like wrapping our pastas in puff pastry sheets so residents can pick them up instead of dealing with utensils. We’re switching up the Memory Care plateware to sectioned platters, with separate spots for items to make it more visually clear and easy.

At a Glance: MorningStar Senior Living

  • Number of residents: 2,075
  • Meals served daily: 6,225
  • Percentage of residents companywide that are housed in independent living, with 45% in assisted living and 20% in Memory Care: 35%
  • Average spent on food daily per resident: $7
  • Changes up recipes from region to region to help seniors connect with flavor memories
  • Reinforces its religious framework with daily huddles where staffers give feedback and celebrate those who went beyond the call of duty or created a special moment for a resident

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