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Eating out is hard for seniors with dementia and their caregivers. Dementia-friendly dining makes it easier in Central Florida

Judy and Roy Scherer enjoy dining at Town House Restaurant in Oviedo, where a controlled environment and trained wait staff accommodate her dementia. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News
Judy and Roy Scherer enjoy dining at Town House Restaurant in Oviedo, where a controlled environment and trained wait staff accommodate her dementia. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

The Alzheimer's Association projects that 720,000 Florida seniors will have Alzheimer's dementia by 2025. That’s a 24% increase from 2020 to 2025.

Those people and their caregivers will find it harder and harder to enjoy life's simple pleasures, like dining out.

Some Central Florida restaurants are making it easier for them. It's called dementia-friendly dining.

At the Town House Restaurant

We're in a separate area from the main dining room at the Town House Restaurant in Oviedo. A curtain hangs in the doorway muffling the hubbub. Blinds block out the windows and darken the room.

Roy Scherer pushes his wife's wheelchair to a small bare table, caresses her face while reminding her who he is, and then greets their friend Dennis Dulniak.

Roy’s wife, Judy Scherer, is far along on their journey with vascular dementia.  Their experience here -- with what's called dementia-friendly dining -- is a real treat for her and for Roy.

The environment is controlled, and the waiter is specially trained.

"In here they know what to expect and so they don't come rushing up to the person who has dementia," Roy Scherer says, adding with a robust laugh. "Well, the first thing they have to do is figure out which one of us has dementia."

The training makes a big difference.

"In a restaurant where that wouldn't be known," Roy Scherer says, "they would come up, for example, to Judy and say, 'Well, the special today is French toast and you can have pancakes, you like ...' and this is all going right by. She doesn't know what day it is, what year it is, may or may not know exactly who I am."

Toni Gitles and Dennis Dulniak describe a placemat with simple puzzles for dinners dealing with dementia and a list of resources. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

Dulniak, who's at the restaurant for an interview, is the founder and driving force behind Central Florida Dementia-Friendly Dining. His wife, Nancy, died last year. He says she had Alzheimer's

"For me, it’s a dedication, that I can pay it forward," Dulniak says.

Toni Gitles is there, too. She works closely with Dulniak and trains wait staff for participating restaurants.

Three of them are already on board: this one, Patio Grill in Sanford, and The Meatball Stoppe in Orlando. Dulniak’s effort started in January 2020, before the pandemic. Now it's back.

The restaurants set aside a few hours one day a week, when they're not busy, and use a quiet room if they have one. The wait staff know to slow down and smile, approach from the front, avoid touching, speak calmly, limit the options and, especially, exercise a ton of patience.

"That dining experience reduces the isolation that people have with this disease and allows them to go out and experience life in a way that we still need to support," Dulniak says.

Perspective from the ADRC

Edith Gendron of the Alzheimer's & Dementia Resource Center in Winter Park says a typical noisy restaurant can be too much for someone with advanced dementia.

"Your person may withdraw," she says, "and actually pull away and become very uncommunicative, head goes down and maybe they start fiddling with something.

"Or they’re going to get very distressed and,  'Ay, yay, yay,' they want to go. 'No, no, I'm not going to go in there.' They're going to be upset."

With dementia-friendly dining, they can focus on the meal and socialize with others traveling the same road.

"So, if someone at the other table does take that meatball out of their mouth and go, "Wah, what is this?" and then stick it back in, you're OK."

At the Meatball Stoppe

Central Florida Dementia-Friendly Dining started at the Meatball Stoppe.

Isabella Morgia di Vicari and her husband, Jeff Morgia, own and operate The Meatball Stoppe in Orlando. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE News

Isabella Morgia di Vicari is chef and co-owner  with her husband, Jeff Morgia, at the lively Italian eatery. She has witnessed the ravages of Alzheimer's in her own family.

The person living with dementia probably won't remember the meal. But Morgia di Vicari says that, for that moment, they can delight in an old song or favorite food.

"And for them to sing in our restaurant and enjoy eating spaghetti and meatballs or a meatball sub or eggplant parmigiana or whatever this is," she says, "it just brings them joy."

And it can be a much-needed chance for the caregiver -- who may be grieving and overburdened -- to simply relax.

Joe Byrnes came to WMFE/WMFV from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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