For my mom, it started with a fire. She had decided to cook pasta for lunch and put water on to boil. Then she got distracted. Eventually, all of the water in her pot boiled away, and its contents went up in smoke, along with a dishtowel that happened to be lying nearby. It wasn’t a huge fire, and in theory, this was a mistake anyone could have made. But for my brother and me, it was the first sign that maybe she shouldn’t live alone anymore.
Food, or the lack of ability to prepare it, is one of the main reasons elderly people move into assisted living facilities each year. For some, the reasons are like my mom’s, where preparing meals on her own became dangerous. For others, it’s a question of no longer being physically able to cook on their own. Both cases can result in seniors eating unhealthily—meals comprised of candy or snack foods—or nothing at all.
Now one startup is hoping to help the elderly by bringing food to them. Aptly named Chefs for Seniors, the service pairs senior citizens with their very own chef who comes to their home each week or every other week and prepares nutritious meals.
Chefs for Seniors cofounder Kate Toews says the idea for the service came from her cofounder’s wife’s grandmother, who had essentially stopped eating and was losing a lot of weight. The family agonized about what to do and eventually decided to move her into an assisted living facility.
“At that point, he realized that this was a really common challenge,” says Toews. “It’s actually a really common experience—that lack of food and meals would be the thing that would push people out of their homes.”
Currently operating in South Florida, Wisconsin, and Chicago, Chefs for Seniors caters exclusively to the elderly, with more than half of its clients over the age of 80. Each senior is assigned his or her own chef who creates a personalized menu with the client. Chefs arrive armed with groceries selected specifically for that person. They spend a few hours at the senior’s home and cook 10-12 servings of food that he or she can enjoy before the next visit. By pairing the same chef with the same senior, ideally, over time they can create a bond.
The service only hires chefs with culinary degrees and restaurant experience. But during the job interview, recruiters focus less on how well the applicants know their way around the kitchen and more on whether or not they’ll be a good companion for an elderly person.
“We basically hire exclusively for social skills,” says Toews. “We just assume, and it’s held relatively true, that once you’ve got those credentials, you can cook. We’re not looking for, like, Michelin star cooks here. We’re looking for regular food that you would want to eat.”
Some chefs are stay-at-home moms who went to culinary school and are looking to fill their days while the kids are in school. Others are retired from the restaurant industry, or are just looking for a job with a less punishing schedule. Many restaurant workers work long hours in the kitchen, often well into the night. Chefs for Seniors cooks work during the traditional 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours.
Most chefs cook for an average of 10 people, and no chef sees more than four clients in a single day. When they visit, they talk through meal ideas with seniors and come up with a menu for the following week. Chefs have a number of preset meals to choose from, but can also make special requests for clients’ personal favorites and customize some of the options. There is a fixed rate, with the basic menu priced at $90, plus groceries for 10-12 servings of food.
“Over time, the chef gets to know you’re a diabetic but you don’t like this and you do like that, and it’s very easy for us to tailor the menu to things that we know you like,” Toews says. “We have clients that basically just say ‘chef’s choice’ every week. We have others that maybe their son or daughter actually wants to be selecting the menu and be very involved. That’s fine as well.”
She says that many of the company’s clients are grandmothers who have cooked their entire life but physically can’t anymore. For them, the service is a way to get the homemade food they love again.
“I can’t tell you how many of our clients like deviled eggs,” Toews says. “I cannot imagine asking a professional chef to come to my home and make deviled eggs, but I cannot tell you how excited so many of our clients get when I say ‘Yeah, we can do that.’”
The service can also serve as an extra set of eyes and ears when a caregiver is away. A chef can notify a senior’s family that a lightbulb needs changing, for instance, or if something seems out of the ordinary. It’s reassuring to have confirmation that grandma is doing fine, just as she told you on the phone.
In fact, the sense of companionship may be the company’s most vital asset. “It’s a pretty powerful thing to see someone who is often alone all day, maybe doesn’t have family in the area—you’re the reason they get up in the morning, they put their makeup on,” Toews says. “They’re maybe not feeling great, but they’re going to get out of bed and talk to you that day. This is a pretty powerful emotional experience.”