Mary Cooley: Do the little things

“If there is an issue in your area, you need to communicate,” she explains. “You need to see eye to eye on a problem in order to solve it. We had to foster communication.”

That, she has done, says Executive Chef Billy Henderson.

“Things run much more smoothly now,” Henderson notes. “Everybody is working together and the residents really enjoy the food.”

The residents were the other part of Cooley’s challenge, but it was made easier by the fact that Pennswood’s residents are by and large an active, involved group of people.

“The average age here is 84, but when you meet these individuals you would never suspect they were that old,” she says. “They are very engaged and active and staying focused on living their lives.”

She added that there are more than 80 committees at Pennswood Village, working on everything from concerts to gardening. No detail is too trivial to be assigned to a resident group.

“For example, there is a fresh flower committee,” she says, “and their job is to place fresh flowers around the village every Friday. Then there is the dead flower committee, which goes around every Wednesday removing the dead flowers.”

In any long-term care setting, food is always one of the most important elements. But when Cooley arrived, she saw that there was a disconnect between the residents and the foodservice staff.

“The residents knew there was a Dining Services department, but they didn’t know all the things we did,” she explains. “So we started giving tours of the kitchen. That was an ongoing activity, but we also started doing a lot of rounding. We would talk to residents after meals, during meals, to find out what they liked and didn’t like. And we began to involve them in menu planning. We would say, ‘we’re getting ready to do our fall-winter menu cycle. Do you have any recipes that we could incorporate into the menu?’ Or, ‘what items would be good things to add onto the menu?’”

She also began letting residents have a say in purchasing decisions by staging tastings.

“Residents weren’t happy with the coffee we were serving,” she recounts. “It was a liquid product, and although it was convenient we weren’t doing ourselves any favors by using it. So we brought in some new coffees and did two blind tastings on two different days. The residents had a good time with it. We did the same with ice cream vendors, and the residents began to understand that their input was very valuable.”

By establishing that bond with residents, Cooley was not only improving their perception of the Dining Services department, she also was getting back to what she enjoyed most about foodservice: interacting with customers.

“One of the reasons this was such a nice transition was, the one area I really enjoyed working in hospitals was the connection to the patients, of getting to interact with them,” she recalls. “I began to see less and less of that happening, whether because patient stays were shorter or programs being pared down because there wasn’t enough money. And here, your connection with the residents is crucial.”

Of course, being a people person wasn’t exactly what Cooley had envisioned while studying dietetics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. But when she took her first job, at Germantown Hospital near Philadelphia, she got a new perspective.

“My job was half administrative and half clinical, and I realized the clinical side wasn’t for me,” she says. “I liked the management side.”

She has remained in eastern Pennsylvania her entire career, working at various hospitals under such mentors as the late Don Marsh and earning a master’s degree in nutrition education. Before moving to Pennswood Village, Cooley had spent the last 16 years as foodservice director at Pottstown Hospital.

Now, she spends her days helping satisfy residents with a menu that has taken a local and more diverse focus.

“We have changed the menu a lot,” says Cooley. “We have looked at the menu from a cost standpoint and seasonality, bringing on more local and seasonal products. It doesn’t make sense, for instance, in menu planning to put asparagus on the menu when it’s not in season; it’s too expensive. So now our menu may say, ‘vegetables in season’ rather than a specific vegetable to give us that flexibility. Billy will do more fish of the day and chef’s specials to incorporate that seasonality.”

Some of what Dining Services prepares comes from on-site gardens tended by residents, and Cooley tries to use that as a link between foodservice and residents.

“When residents donate produce we ask for their names, so we can put on the menu, ‘greens donated by Mr. So-and-So,’ or ‘the zucchini bread was made with zucchini from Mrs. So-and-So’s garden,’” Cooley notes. She adds that the emphasis on local and sustainable is in keeping with Pennswood’s overall efforts to be “green;” for instance, the village installed a geothermal system two years ago to heat and cool the buildings.
But even as the local angle is covered, residents also are asking for more diverse menus.

“There are plenty of requests for meatloaf and mac and cheese, but we’re getting more requests for more cultural dishes, more vegetarian entrées, so we have to balance those requests.”

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