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baked_pot_pies_for_seniors_by_Chad_Myers.png Chad Myers
Pot pies are baked with love by Chad Myers at Milly Valley Care Center.

Stories from the front lines: An Iowa senior dining chef’s story of creatively caring for residents and staff during the coronavirus crisis

Chad Myers and the food service team at the Mill Valley Care Center in small-town Iowa had to scramble when communal dining stopped and in-room dining started suddenly. Myers has risen to the challenge and created a cozy, comforting environment for an isolated population in need of lots of smiles.

Chad Myers has years of culinary experience from a country club. Last year, after a failed business venture, he ended up with an unexpected new beginning as a senior dining chef at Mill Valley Care Center, a nursing home with 40 residents and an assisted living side with about 18 tenants just nine blocks away from where he lives with his family in the small Iowa town of Bellevue. The change has meant a significantly reduced commute and better quality of life for Myers.

Just as he was getting settled into senior dining, the coronavirus pandemic struck, shutting down visiting hours and communal dining rooms in senior dining facilities all over the country. While it’s been a challenge, Myers has a pretty tenacious sense of optimism.

senior_dining_chef_Chad_Myers.png“I think that it goes without saying that this coronavirus debacle has been quite the learning experience,” says Myers (pictured). “Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, but I feel like there is a silver lining to most events in life. I lost my mother when I was 21. That was horrible, but it started a series of events that led me into professional kitchens, something that I know that I was put on this earth to do.”

Using his upbeat attitude and culinary skills to keep the seniors and those who care for them well-fed and happy, Myers tells us what the coronavirus pandemic has been like for him. Here’s his story:

As this coronavirus pandemic started, I was skeptical that it would ever affect me here in Eastern Iowa. When the crap hit the proverbial fan, all of the regulations seemed a bit overwhelming.

When we transitioned from communal dining to in-room dining, it is safe to say we were a touch unprepared. We only had about eight plate covers. So, I put in an order for plate covers as quickly as I could. Of course, they were on a two-week back order, so we had to be as efficient as we could and only plate-and-go when the makeshift tray warmer (a speed rack with a tarp duct taped around it) was ready to go.

We covered each plate with aluminum foil, and it was all hands on deck like a country club banquet to get plates to the rooms as quickly as possible while it was still hot. It was a tad overwhelming for some of the staff, but I did my best to stay calm and explain that you just have to work quickly and do whatever needs to be done to make it happen. My five years at the country club instilled that in my brain…It’s just like getting three vegetarians unannounced while plating a banquet for 300. You just make it happen! 

After about a week and a half of a pushing sense of urgency, and another half week when the plate covers showed up, the process is now like a well-oiled machine. I decided to use a prep table like a pass to stage the trays and have everything organized before plating begins.

heart_pot_pies_for_seniors_by_Chad_Myers.pngPhoto: Little things, like these pastry hearts on pot pies, show seniors their food is made with love. (Credit: Chris Myers)

My greatest sense of pride in this whole ordeal is realizing how much I truly love hospitality. I have shed a large amount of blood, sweat and tears in this industry, for a lot of years trying as hard as I can to make people happy with my craft.  What I have learned in the nursing home industry is that my stress is just a pinch of puppy crap (like my daddy always says), compared to what the nursing staff and support staff for nursing has to endure. 

I’ve always said in this business, ‘It’s just food, it’s not rocket science and people’s lives aren’t on the line.’ Well in this business, I’ve learned that, guess what, people’s lives are on the line. 

My insatiable need to make people happy is being applied to the residents as well as the employees. When the salad bar in the break room got taken away, I worked with my staff to put leftovers in deli containers so that they could reheat them in the microwave. I try once a week to make a treat for them, whether it’s pizza or cookies, anything to take the focus off of the stress of this situation. I try to keep the director of nursing and the administrator with full bellies. It is obvious that there are a ton of things rolling down the pipeline, that need their attention averted if only for a few moments while eating.

root_beer_floats_for_seniors.pngPhoto: Who doesn’t like a root beer float? The seniors at Mill Valley Care Center get treats like this to keep them smiling as much as possible since communal dining has stopped.

For the residents I have tried to figure out ways to put smiles on their faces. I’m sure that everything going on can get a little confusing but creating happy memories where possible is a must. The facility received some artwork from employees’ kids, and other children from the community. I thought it would be a cool idea to turn them into placemats for the trays. That was a big success, I see them hanging in multiple rooms. 

Communal activities are also banned, so what better activities than activities with food? We have gone room to room with root beer floats and popsicles to promote hydration. We have ice cream malts planned down the road. I made chicken pot pies with hearts on them, just so everyone knew that they were made with love.

I feel like in times like this the margin for error is so slim. I have to make sure the food is tasty. I have to make sure it is hot. I have to make sure that they know that someone cares about their well-being at all times. I pair this with the need to make sure that the staff feels appreciated for the dedication that it takes to keep people alive and happy. Maybe some of you feel like you have your backs against the wall, but I feel that if you put your best foot forward and do the very best that you can do with a smile on your face, we will get through this. I feel like everything happens for a reason, and I was put in this position to share what I do with people who need it most and I couldn’t be happier or prouder to do this, even with COVID-19 staring at me.”

As told to Tara Fitzpatrick, April 21, 2020.

Contact Tara at [email protected].

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie.

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