After returning from a fun-filled family holiday in an island paradise, a five-year-old boy described his favourite memory of the trip: the ice-cream. It may seem strange to pick food over other more significant moments and exotic experiences, yet, remembering the sensation, taste and texture of certain foods are how many of our deep memories are formed and retained for years to come.
Many people can describe powerful emotions and memories when they encounter certain smells, textures and flavours. A bunch of flowers can evoke the sensation of being in a long-forgotten garden. The aroma of an inviting home-made chicken soup in winter can transport you back to your grandmother’s kitchen on the other side of the world. Most happy childhood memories go hand-in-hand with a lolly or sweet treat, usually as these were enjoyed on a special occasion or as part of a treasured memory.
In fact, while we forget huge slices of time, names and details, everyone has food memories. Familiar flavours can be incredibly evocative, triggering deep memories of a different time and place, people, events and even feelings and sensations associated with a particular taste or ingredient.
Linking tastes and smells to memories is a human evolutionary survival skill. Since primitive times, our brains needed to store crucial information about what food was good to eat and what was dangerous, so attaching the memory of flavours, textures and smells with positive or negative experiences is a hard-wired human attribute.
For residents in aged care, the memories evoked with food are remarkable, especially as residents with short-term memory loss or cognitive impairment who cannot clearly recount a memory or person from their past. It connects the present moment to their more familiar past and identity. The happy memory promotes appetite and encourages food intake. This is the reason why nostalgia food is so physically and emotionally nourishing to people who may be confused about their current surroundings.
Introducing a new, modern dish or unfamiliar cuisine is not always as successful as sticking to familiar favourites, traditional, nostalgic foods. If a resident cannot identify a flavour or it doesn’t taste the way he or she remembers, it may be left uneaten on the plate. Given the importance of reducing plate-waste and boosting nutrition for residents, many Aged Care Chefs often chose ingredients that their residents recognise or are used to the taste of, like the original recipe Hellmann’s Real mayonnaise for example, made the traditional way with egg yolk. Chefs also often tell us that their residents love the familiar taste of PG Tips which they grew up drinking at home.
Aged Care Chefs continue to have a tricky task of continuously adding gentle new twists to residents’ old favourites to inject enough variety and nutritional value into the meals to satisfy family expectations and menu accreditation requirements, while still creating meals that their residents love.
Popcorn Chicken spinach wrap with cheese and real mayo
Old-fashioned foods, particularly sweets and desserts, are always on the menu for Baptist Care’s Maranoa Centre in Alstonville where Lynne McKee is the Hotel Service Manager. “Here on the NSW North Coast, many residents grew up in farming communities where old English-style dishes like bread and butter pudding, rice pudding, sticky date pudding, trifle or lemon meringue pie were very much part of their childhood. These dishes always bring back fond memories,” explained Lynne.
Lemon Meringue Pie
Learning and incorporating a resident’s favourite childhood dishes can be a powerful way to tap into positive emotions, restoring a resident’s appetite and zest for life. Some Aged Care facilities have included classic family recipes from residents into the menu and found residents ate more so gained weight. At the Salvation Army Aged Care Plus centres, residents and their families are encouraged to pass on their favourite recipes to the Aged Care Chefs. The response from residents and families was so enthusiastic, these recipes are featured in the centre’s dedicated cookbook.
British bangers and mash
Choosing the menu and key ingredients carefully, with a focus on real food, traditional flavours and recipes, can have profound effects on the well-being and health of aged care residents, creating a positive experience with every mouthful.