Denise LoSchiavo, retirement home director, believes in home-cooked dinners.
“The ham and turnips are baking,” she says one recent afternoon. “I’m also cooking three chickens, beets with balsamic vinaigrette and butter, roasted sweet potatoes doused with olive oil, and baby spinach with crisp-fried bacon and sage.”
Institutional it isn’t. At Country Vista Residential Care Home, the business Denise straightforwardly calls an “old folks home,” nutrition comes not from an Ensure can, but the canning shelf, the garden, local farmers and ranchers and the farmers market she helped start last year.
At this point, she doesn’t even rely on recipes. “I make this stuff up,” she says. “I lie in bed and think about what I have in the kitchen.” Last night’s leftover rustic bread becomes today’s addictive bread pudding. A bumper crop of kohlrabi becomes—wait, what do you do with kohlrabi? When Denise wasn’t sure, she asked one of her clients.
“I learned you can slice it and eat it like an apple,” Denise recalls. “Or shred it for a salad. A lot of the old folks are old farmers. They don’t think there’s anything weird about eating organic food—some of them know more about it than I do. Bertha, who’s 92, taught me to put a potato in with a pot of greens. It changes the flavor, mellows it.”
Such lessons are often taught at Denise’s dinner table—a multigenerational place big enough for her husband and teenaged kids, as well as her clients, and then some. “Their people are always invited to have meals with us, too,” she says.
An old folks home that serves healthy, organic meals, eaten around the table family-style, in the company of the director’s actual family, who are also residents of the “home?” Yes.
In fact, caring for the elderly this way is in Denise’s blood. Since the 1870s, members of her family have run both old folks homes and the publicly supported indigent residences once known as “poor farms.” Visiting relatives as a child and caring for a difficult grandmother with dementia helped her realize a calling. “I’m a caretaker,” she says. “That’s what I do.”
Though trained as a paralegal, she came to terms with her own quality-of-life issues in her 30s, when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. “It changed my perspective,” she recalls. “I used to work 10 hours a day and go in on Saturdays, and now I just wanted to be available to my children.” Suddenly, the family business seemed like a good fit, and she set about finding a large house with wide hallways, well-appointed bathrooms and room for a sprawling garden.
As almost-final-resting-places go, Country Vista is so down-homey as to be practically off the grid. Denise accepts no health insurance, no sophisticated medical treatment is available—though a country doctor does make house calls—and there’s room for just three to five residents at a time; most of their days spent engaged in such therapeutic activities as real life.
“Anybody that’s able or willing to help is put to work,” Denise says. “Mostly, people don’t like to sit around and do nothing. Some people like to peel carrots or feed the cats, darn a pair of socks or fold laundry. My situation isn’t for everybody,” she adds. “Some people prefer to play bridge.”
That stereotype may be dissolving, though, she points out, as baby boomers “come of age.” In another decade, a place like Country Vista may not seem like such an exception to such a depressing rule. We who plan to get old someday can only hope.
In the meantime, Denise is looking into acquiring a flock of chickens. “I always thought you should eat what you grow,” she says, “and it would be nice to be able to go out in the yard and get some eggs.” Or send out a client, except that Denise would never use that word, let alone “senior citizen” or “resident.” She prefers, she says, to call the old folks by their names.
Country Vista Residential Care Home
13356 Old Kimbro Rd., Manor