Food & hotel services director Jon Bicknell is responsible for catering and hospitality in one of the UK’s fastest growing care home operators. Using his unique insight and experience, he looks at what the country’s changing demographics means for pubs, cafes and restaurants and muses on how he believes many establishments are failing the growing market of older diners.
We are an ageing population – by 2040, nearly one in seven people will be aged over 75 and, as the number of people in their 80 and 90s grows, there will be a greater proportion of the population with visual impairments, mobility issues and degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia. But this baby boomer generation is the first one that grew up enjoying meals out, many are reaping the benefits of generous final salary pension schemes and they don’t see why getting older should curtail their enjoyment of dining out.
Yet anecdotal evidence that many are hesitant to eat out because pubs and restaurants are not embracing their needs in the way that the sector has done with the so-called family dining experience.
For caterers, this means being open to creating services that support customers’ changing needs. Eating out, for afternoon tea, a pub Sunday roast or a celebration meal in a restaurant, gives families a unique chance to bond and create multigenerational memories. Families will not want to give that up easily and dining establishments have much to gain by providing a bit of support for the older generation as they do already with the colouring books and special cutlery provided for younger customers.
So, what can we do to support older customers? The good news is that it takes sound customer sense more than huge investment.
Eyesight is commonly the first of our senses to deteriorate. Having a large print menu available will help your guests feel included. Try to avoid using italic fonts and remember that the Royal National Institute for the Blind recommends that no printed items should appear in less than 12-point font for anyone’s use: it would be worth considering also printing a menu in 18-point or above which can be discretely offered.
Hearing loss may also affect more of your customers than you might suspect. Statistically, we all begin to lose our hearing when we are in our 30s and 40s. One adult in five, and more than half of all people over the age of 80, suffer from hearing loss. People with hearing issues often struggle to follow conversations in busy restaurants. But you can help your older customers make the most of their time with you and encourage them to return with a little forethought.
Think about which table you will put people on if someone books and mentions they have an older party member when booking – perhaps for an 80th birthday or a 30th wedding anniversary. Separating conversations out from background noise becomes harder as we age. This is particularly true for people living with dementia – not being able to join in with the chat can increase someone’s sense of isolation or irrelevance and make a meal out with others a sad occasion.
Try allocating a table in the quietest part of the room, preferably avoiding any low ceilings which can compound the problem or noisy air conditioning or ventilation units.. A less crowded area will also help older customers, if they have diminished depth perception, to avoid the risk of slips, trips and bumps.
People living with dementia or conditions such as Parkinson’s may need further support, but again this does not require significant changes or expense. Hand tremors affect many older people. Consider investing in a few sporks – a hybrid form of cutlery combining a spoon-like shallow scoop with two to four fork tines. They have been part of mainstream American cutlery for decades and are very useful for people with dexterity issues. Although better known as a plastic camping accessory, stylish chrome ones are easy to obtain. You could find that they are also popular with younger clients with injuries or conditions like arthritis too. For those wanting to invest a little further, at Care UK, we have found a range of suppliers that do stylish, high quality cutlery with specially adapted handles. These are easier for people with less flexibility or strength in their hands and fingers to hold and use.
As well as wine glasses, it may help if you have breakfast juice-style, broad based tumblers on hand. Benign tremor, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and some medication can cause older people’s hands to shake. Wine glass stems can cause difficulties and embarrassment for them and offering another style of glass can be helpful in avoiding spills, and they can still enjoy a drink with their dining companions. For hot beverages, forget those hideous plastic ‘toddler beakers’ – catering suppliers now offer stylish, two handled china mugs that can help someone with limited grip to enjoy their Americano at the end of a meal.
Consider using deeper plates with a rim. This also avoids spills and allows the diner to move food around the plate without it sliding off the edge. Please don’t even think about offering those horrible plastic plate guards we’ve all seen in hospitals and the like. The choice of colour can help too – blue plates work well because, as sight and perception deteriorates, differentiating foods such as rice, potato, or chicken from a white plate can be hard. Pretty much, no blue food exists, so the food shows up and the crockery still looks stylish and dignified.
Since we introduced this style and colour of crockery in our 119 homes, residents have told us they enjoy their food more and they are eating more. Many pubs and restaurants use a variety of plates to serve specific dishes on so a deeper plate can almost certainly be provided without the person feeling, or appearing, singled out.
Multigenerational eating has so many benefits – it increases wellbeing, strengthens family bonds and creates special family memories. By making small changes, not only can we increase the dining industry’s potential client base but we can also achieve something worthwhile for families.