• Scalibrini Village is using the power of cooking to help residents reconnect with families and build new friendships. (Supplied)
Scalibrini Village is using the power of cooking to help residents reconnect with families and build new friendships.
By
Caitlin Chang

11 Jan 2016 - 1:12 PM  UPDATED 12 Jan 2016 - 10:56 AM

There’s nothing like savouring a favourite family dish to conjure up memories of days gone by.

And one retirement village is using the power of food to boost the inner health of its residents. Scalabrini Village is an aged care facility offering specialised dementia and palliative care to its residents. With six facilities located across NSW, the villages employ Italian speaking staff, and focus on the distinctive Italian heritage of residents through food, cultural festivals and the importance of family.

Just one example? Its cookbook, Cibo e vita (Food is Life), featuring recipes close to the hearts of residents. “Most of Scalabrini’s Italian residents come from a background where food isn’t purely a source of human nourishment; it’s a way of life,” says Daz Smith, Dementia Lifestyle and Environment Advisor at Scalibrini Village. He says the cookbook gave residents and families “the opportunity to recreate traditional family recipes and capture the story behind them.”

Such an integral part of Italian culture, the focus on food has helped residents make a connection with their families and build friendships – not to mention feel more at home. “A positive meal experience is a fabulous reminiscing tool that encourages the thought of past pleasurable moments, in conjunction with sensory stimuli and calmness,” Smith tells SBS. “The dining table is a place where family and friends often sit and speak about the day’s events, so it gives a sense of normalcy in everyday life rather than an institutional feeling.”

It’s not just a sense of community (and full stomachs) that this focus on food provides. The activity of preparing food can have mental benefits for residents – one 2012 study found that cooking activities, such as baking, may have a positive impact on the memory and overall engagement of dementia sufferers.

Smith says he has seen these benefits first hand. “In the earlier stages of dementia, people find great satisfaction in assisting with preparing foods like they may have done for many years in their family home. In the later stages of dementia, the taste, colour, aroma, feel and presentation of the food becomes an important part of a sensory experience.” He says you can see the boost in overall mood when residents get involved in the kitchen. “One 81-year-old resident, Caterina, was typically quite anxious and frustrated because of the unfamiliar environment she found herself in,” Smith explains. “One day a staff member brought in some dough for them to make ravioli and dumplings. It had a positive impact on Caterina’s overall mood; she is clearly happier when she is cooking and using her hands, just as she did back in her own home.”

Connecting to people through food is certainly not a new phenomenon or exclusive to Italian culture but for Smith it’s heart-warming to see day to day what a good meal can do. “I’ve seen residents who were once distant in their thoughts become more present – sitting around a table chatting, rolling dough or visiting the garden to pick herbs.”

In the end, “a positive meal experience is a fabulous reminiscing tool that encourages the thought of past pleasurable moments, along with a sensory stimuli and calmness.”

Scalabrini Village's cookbook Cibo e vita (Food is Life) is available for purchase from the facility.

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