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.
“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.”
One of the ways Parlee has brought more dignity to dining for ARC residents is by making finger foods for residents who find it difficult to handle forks and spoons.
“Alzheimer’s patients get to the point where they can’t use flatware, because their hands shake,” he explains.
“But they can pick up solid things, so we make finger foods for them. For example, for dessert we make big sheets of cookies, and cut them into cookie sticks. If we have chicken pot pie we can take a little of the filling and wrap it in a pastry, like a pot pie chicken finger.”
Parlee also has enhanced the quality of both pureed foods and the experience of eating them.
“We’ve done away with the lazy Susans, the plain scoops of globs of puree,” he says. “Here, we take away the trays; we don’t use bibs, we use scarves. We have music. When we serve honey mustard chicken sandwiches, we do a scoop of pureed chicken, hit it with a little of the veloute sauce, and top it with some honey mustard sauce. We try to bring some dignity to the dining experience.”
Aromatherapy also is an element of Parlee’s program.
“I take a roast in the morning and rub it with garlic and olive oil and fresh basil and thyme,” he explains. “Then I go down to the assisted living area at 2 p.m. and stick the roast in the oven so the residents can smell the roast cooking. Then we carve it in front of them and serve it. We have found that atmosphere and surroundings have a lot to do with residents’ appetites. They eat better when they see that people pay attention to them.”
Parlee notes that ARC residents can be very vocal about the food.“They’re unhappy and frustrated, they need to vent, so we get all sorts of criticism from residents,” he says. “And yet, if you talk to the family members, you learn that they actually go crazy over the food.”
Parlee is a person who tends to immerse himself in whatever he is doing, ever since he started working at the Sonesta Hotel in Hartford, Conn. Although he lacks a culinary degree, Parlee has spent his entire adult like learning and perfecting his skills.
“I liked cooking and I found out that I had an aptitude for it,” he recalls. “I talked with some of the chefs I worked with, and they suggested that I come and learn from them. So I spent time with the butcher chef, learning to fabricate meats; I worked with the pastry chef, the sous chef; I learned it all.”
He worked in several hotels, restaurants and country clubs in Connecticut for nearly 20 years, before taking on the role of food and beverage director at The Gables at Farmington, an upscale retirement community in Farmington, Conn. He worked at The Gables from 1998 to 2000, when he became the foodservice director at The Ethel Walker School, an exclusive girl’s boarding school in Simsbury, Conn. He remained there until February 2006, when the job at ARC opened.
“I felt I needed to do something different, and I’ve been able to use my hotel and restaurant background here, as well as everything I did with The Ethel Walker School,” says Parlee. But he didn’t just rely on his past skills. He took the next step by joining the Dietary Managers Association and taking the six-hour test to become a certified dietary manager.
Parlee is sanguine about his job, despite the seemingly depressing nature of his surroundings.
“Basically, when somebody comes here this is their last residence,” he notes. “We lose anywhere from 25 to 30 residents a year. In spite of that, we go about our business every day, which is to put a smile on everyone’s face.”