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Dinners at the Seneca in Rockville.

In a culture as obsessed with food as ours, the inability to enjoy a delicious meal can be one of the cruellest indignities of aging. That’s why, a decade ago, two Atlanta chefs named Sarah Gorham and Stone Morris devised a cooking method specifically for older adults facing neuromuscular, physical, and cognitive challenges, such as illness. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, which can make it difficult to both swallow and sit still during meals.

A seniors’ residence had asked them to offer meals that could restore some independence to residents in memory care. “Like any other innovation, it’s about trial and error,” says Gorham. “We had a very forward-thinking company trying to do the right thing for its residents.”

Meals, redone: Recreations of favorite foods by the culinary staff of the Watermark DC area assisted living facilities. From left to right: Chef’s salad, Filet of beef & sweet potatoes, Chicken & rice.

The technique they’ve developed, called “grind dining,” takes favorite foods and reinterprets them in a portable form that’s easier to digest, while retaining familiar textures and flavors. The results are often beautiful, nothing like mash, in which everything turns into mixed mush. Take a steak and potatoes: once the meat is minced, it is tossed with gravy, then topped with duchess potatoes. The end product looks like a fancy cupcake-shaped canapé that can be eaten in two bites, without a fork or knife.

The pilot program was so successful that the two women turned it into a business. Their method has since been rolled out to assisted living facilities across the country, including three in the Washington area run by Watermark, in Fairfax, Alexandria and Rockville. Watermark launched the program in 2015 and now trains all of its culinary staff in it. Facility chefs participate in an immersive ten-week program filled with cooking demonstrations and training in the use of special equipment. Gorham and Morris are also present.

Dishes prepared during a recent training in the technique of “grind dining”.

According to Jonathan Garber, executive director of the Seneca of Rockville, one benefit is that portable portions allow residents to walk around the dining room while they eat. “It allowed our members to thrive, to feel the socialization,” he says, “and not be afraid to eat.”

The Seneca’s dining room manager, Jason Love, says there’s something for the staff, too: “We can actually embrace our creative culinary side and not be so rigid. In turn, our members end up thriving.

Maya Pottiger