The table is set for company: china, silverware, fresh flowers in a crystal vase. The wait staff is clad in impeccable white and black, and a dark-suited director of dining services greets many of the bejeweled diners by name.
At Aventura, Fla.' s Classic Residence by Hyatt, dining is about more than food. It is intended as a sensual experience, complete with gourmet dishes and well-appointed surroundings. In this affluent community, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef faces three challenges: aging palates, health-related food restrictions and a demanding clientele accustomed to the finer things in life, including well-prepared meals.
"I must find the balance between certain health concerns and changing tastes and the variety and quality they are used to," says executive chef Robert Ibgui, whose 24-member staff prepares about 500 meals a day.
Like wrinkled skin and waning eyesight, fading taste buds are an inevitable part of aging, but seniors could learn a lesson or two from Ibgui. Perhaps the most important: It doesn't have to be complicated. A few changes in seasoning, a few ingredient substitutions, can jazz up any meal.
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About 10,000 taste buds line an adult's tongue, throat and mouth, perceiving sweet, salty, sour and bitter. As the years pass, we lose some of them, and the taste buds that remain grow less sensitive. Salty and sweet tastes are usually the first to go.
Compounding the problem, older adults also begin to lose their sense of smell, a vital enhancer of taste. Dietitians say the consequences can become apparent as early as age 50, particularly for people who are prone to sinus and respiratory infections or take certain medications.
By the time seniors hit their 70s and 80s, most palates have dulled and favorite foods simply don't taste as good.
"The rate of decline is very individual, but it happens to everybody," says Chris Rosenbloom, a registered dietitian who teaches about nutrition and aging at Georgia State University. "For the older old, it's a fact of life."
When food becomes less appealing, seniors tend to eat smaller meals or skip them altogether. They begin to lose weight, which can lead to frailty.
"Since it doesn't happen overnight, it's not always noticeable at first," says Kent Holtorf, who specializes in age-management medicine at the Holtorf Medical Center in San Francisco. "Usually, if they talk about it when they come in, they'll mention it as a secondary symptom."
Among the factors that exacerbate the loss of taste perception are smoking, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and medications including antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs and some arthritis remedies. Dietary restrictions to deal with hypertension and diabetes further complicate meal prep.
Says Holtorf: "People think of bland food for the elderly, but it's quite the opposite. ... More pizzazz in their food, more spices, more herbs."
Chef Ibgui knows this all too well, as he must accommodate diners with a variety of tastes and health issues, from those living in skilled nursing units to couples in independent apartments.
His menu options are low in fat, salt and sugar. Any frying is done in heart-healthy oil. All the food is made from scratch, including sauces, soups and desserts, with in-season fruits and vegetables.
One favorite salad: avocado slices tossed with grapefruit segments and served over spinach that has been lightly dressed with balsamic vinaigrette.
"It is the type of food that is healthy for everyone," Ibgui says.
There are healthful ways to compensate for fading taste buds at the table, as well.
"I don't do salt," says Evelyn Cohan, 85, one of Ibgui's diners. "But I do use pepper liberally. It's a great substitute."
Now you know
Flavors fading? These tips can help:
* Use salt-free seasonings like Mrs. Dash.
* Substitute high-flavor ingredients for salty or sugary ones — lemon juice for salad dressing, vanilla extract for sugar, hot mustard for soy sauce.
* Experiment with fresh herbs and spices.
* Limit use of over-the-counter nasal sprays, which can dull your sense of smell.
* Practice good oral hygiene.
* Alert your health care professional to changes in your flavor perception.