Academic journal article Generations

The Dining Room as the Locus of Ritual in Assisted Living

Academic journal article Generations

The Dining Room as the Locus of Ritual in Assisted Living

Article excerpt

The repetitive and predictive nature of dining room rituals guides incoming residents, enabling them to adjust successfully to their new living space.

Martha St. John has lived at Boxwood Gardens Assisted Living for eight years. Now age 81, she moved into assisted living after a stroke to ease the conscience of her niece, her closest relative, and to reap the benefits of cooked meals and housekeeping. As she settled in to her new residence, St. John soon learned the importance of ritual in helping her adjust to the daily routine in a group living situation and maintain what was important in her life-a passion for painting religious art.

When asked what makes a good day, she replied, "Well, when I feel good...I have my nice warm shower, get dressed in the morning, go down to have a breakfast sitting right there, served right there to have with friends, and then I read my newspaper. And then I...conduct the exercise [class] and maybe do a bit of puttering yesterday I planted some forgetme- nots for a garden, or I'd pick a bouquet for somebody.... I'd listen to my music and just relax."

Originally, St. John retired from federal employment to have more time to pursue painting. Now her room serves as a studio, natural light streaming onto her canvasses, and, through contacts with church organizations, she shows her work in surrounding communities. St. John's room is an important personal space that enables her to engage with her art as well as to relax.

Yet for her and many others, the dining room is another key space, one that is central for social interaction. The common experience of eating together, with the give and take of conversation, serves a crucial role in ritual, especially when strangers are brought together with the expectation of making assisted living their home.

Boxwood Gardens is one of more than 36,000 assisted living communities nationwide serving more than one million people (Assisted Living Federation of America [ALFA], 2010). Assisted living is a form of long-term care that provides residential and functional assistance, mostly to older adults, in an environment centered on the consumer, often called a social model of care (Carder and Hernandez, 2004; Wilson, 1996).

These residential settings meet consumers' physical and social needs by emphasizing the values of privacy, dignity, and autonomy; providing homelike environments; and supporting the ideal of aging in place (ALFA, 2010; Kane and Wilson, 1993; Mollica, 2001). St. John is a typical resident in that assisted living serves primarily a female clientele in their eighties (National Center for Assisted Living, 2009). Also, St. John's daily life is patterned; within her day, as in most assisted living residents' days, rituals take place in the dining room.

This article examines the dining room as a locus of ritual in the assisted living setting. By viewing the dining room as a ritualized site, we can better explain the function and meaning this space holds for residents. Our findings encompass three themes: time and the way daily life within assisted living is ordered by mealtimes; choice, one of assisted living's values, and its expression and encouragement in the dining room; and social interaction, a consequence of gathering everyone in one place three times a day. The daily meal as ritual is meaningful because it provides order and purpose, and functions to communicate crucial information about social mores and setting-specific social expectations.

The Dining Room as Social Context

The dining room is the central space of community life in an assisted living home. It is here where residents gather, converse, and are nurtured, and it is the interaction in this public space that helps residents adjust and eventually accept assisted living as home. In some residences, the dining room has the aura of an upscale hotel restaurant, with linen tablecloths, fresh flowers, and glass water goblets. …

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