Home for the Holidays: Fostering Community in the Dining Room

The holiday season is a good time to re-evaluate your senior care dining room. The question of inclusiveness is at the forefront. Residents may be feeling a sense of isolation, perhaps missing lost loved ones, most acutely at this time of year. How well are your dining space and your servers set up to meet residents’ needs for belonging and community? How well is your organization bringing people together?

I recently spoke with a resident in a senior care community, who described an ongoing sense of being “the odd man out” in the dining room. Why? Because all the tables in her dining room were set with even numbers of place settings. Being a single person, she felt discouraged trying to choose a place to sit…even when there was no one else seated at the table. She was constantly reminded of her singleness, in the environment that is her home. In most senior care communities, dining rooms are set up to accommodate large numbers of residents, and tables are set for four, six, or eight people. The dining experience is a natural place to transform neighbors into friends, but residents must first feel comfortable where they are sitting!

One solution that may be introduced for the holidays (and kept beyond) is the community table. Adding one long table in the dining room, or even just pushing two or three tables together, may be a starting point. Dining out in restaurants throughout Europe, oftentimes there is a community table in place, where singles and small groups of friends join together to eat with strangers. This model is becoming more popular in restaurants in the United States. It is also practical way to support single seniors in the residential dining room.

Community can be brought to the table through beauty and inspiration. Holiday centerpieces are a simple craft project that can bring residents together in creative collaboration. Have small groups of residents create centerpieces using attractive bowls, lining them with seasonally-hued fabrics. They can arrange washed, ready-to-eat fruits of the season (such as mandarins, apples, and pears, for winter) inside, along with other seasonal accents. These centerpieces can encourage diners to enjoy the benefits of fresh fruit, as well as appreciate the efforts of their neighbors.

Creating decorations for the dining space is a way to help residents feel at home in their senior care communities. Seeing their work displayed in the communal space appeals to their need for contribution, and can help them feel less like strangers in their own dining rooms. Time spent making decorations is also an opportunity for residents to meet and socialize with others. If the holiday centerpieces (or other hand-crafted decorations) are a hit, encourage residents to make new ones throughout the year as the seasons change.

Servers are key in creating an atmosphere of community during the holidays. Encourage your serving staff to ask residents to share their happy holiday stories, generating conversation at the dining table. Have servers make a special effort to engage with newer residents, or those who tend to have trouble starting conversations for themselves. Make sure your staff seek out any single diners and invite them to share their stories with the larger group.

Conversation starters from the servers can be very simple: “The chef is planning our holiday cookies for next week. Are you a sugar cookie fan or a gingerbread fan?” If there’s an upcoming party, have servers ask residents what they are planning to wear. Or, have servers share funny holiday stories about their own pets. Encourage servers to come up with things that residents have in common, and test them out as conversation starters at the table.

Serving staff have the unique opportunity to model bringing warmth to one another in an environment of strangers. Most residents become attached to staff members, whom they see more often then family. The new Quality Initiative Survey (QIS) process and Dining Practice Standards mandate higher standards of service quality, based in better relationships among all stakeholders. Servers must be given tools to meet these standards: training in breaking down perceived barriers between people of different backgrounds, cultivating relationship skills, and building self-esteem. With the skills to connect people with one another, servers can create an atmosphere of community all year round – truly making every day a holiday.