Harry Parlee: Culinary Therapy

There are few healthcare environments more challenging to work in than long-term care, and that can be especially true in a setting where many of the residents suffer from a wasting disease such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.

But at the 134-resident Alzheimer’s Resource Center in Plantsville, Conn., the foodservice staff have made great strides in the past couple of years in elevating the culinary experience for residents despite their infirmity.

The change coincided with the February 2006 arrival of Harry Parlee, a chef turned director who has used his hotel, restaurant and private school experience to raise the bar in the kitchen, whether the food being prepared is a side of roast beef or a pureed chicken pot pie.

“The people who come in here can’t do many of the things they use to do, like drive a car,” says Parlee, in explaining his reasons for wanting to improve the quality of the food. “They used to be carpenters, and they can’t work with wood. They used to fly fish, and they can’t go fly fishing any more. The only thing they feel they have any control over is food.” Parlee preaches a very simple philosophy to his staff: “How would you like to treat this person if this were your grandparent?”

As a result, visitors to the ARC might be surprised to walk in on an Octoberfest, complete with music and foods like knockwurst, sauerkraut and German potato salad. Or they might see a Hoedown, with staff in country-western gear serving barbecued ribs and chicken, baked beans and other Western-style food. A holiday party will feature ice sculptures from Parlee, who includes ice carving as one of his talents.

“We have at least 60 residents who still remember the foods they love, and we try to make it for them and put a smile on their faces,” says Parlee. “They will eat so much better.”

It wasn’t always this way at ARC, a 14-year-old facility that is divided into four complexes, each with about 30 residents each. There is also a day-care component, where people who choose to care for parents or spouses at home can bring them for therapy or, as Parlee explains it, “just to get a break.” Before Executive Director Michael Smith hired Parlee, the menu featured cold sandwiches every night, rather than hot entrees. Food seemed to be considered necessary for residents’ survival, but not for their well-being.

Alzheimer’s Resource Center“The first thing I did was eliminate the cold sandwiches,” Parlee says. “I implemented a three-week cycle menu with hot entrees every night. I began buying fresh meat and fabricating it, and making more items from scratch. We started using fresh vegetables, and we brought more height, color and variety to the pureed foods.”

He also moved away from buffet-style service to what he refers to as “station parties,” where cooks prepare food in front of residents.

“They’re more social,” he says of the action stations. “We can have Chef Brian sautéing chicken and broccoli penne, or doing a tri-color ravioli with roasted tomato pesto. Residents appreciate that. If you pull out a menu from The Ethel Walker School and the menu from here, there’s really very little difference. We have stir-fry, chicken cacciatore, chicken pot pie, steak and peppers—all made from scratch.”

Parlee’s changes have gotten a ringing endorsement from executive director Smith.

“Alzheimer’s is a tragic condition, but that disability shouldn’t diminish the quality and experience of sharing a meal,” says Smith. “What Harry and his team have done is elevate that experience, particularly for people who are limited in their ability to chew food. Whether the food is solid or pureed, the foodservice department prepares meals that no one would feel embarrassed about eating.”

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