Maggie Beer’s recipe to fix the horrors of aged care

Maggie Beer is on a mission to transform the food and the quality of life inside one WA aged-care facility.

Maggie Beer is on a mission to transform the food and the quality of life inside one WA aged-care facility. Photo: ABC

In 2019, Maggie Beer walked out of the Cairns Convention Centre in shock at the gastronomical horror stories she had heard during her appearance at the Royal Commission into Aged Care.

The commission learned aged care menus came down to how much the facility paid per resident and how substandard meats and frozen vegetables were used and reheated by poorly trained chefs.

In some of the worst cases, one “upmarket residential aged care facility” had a maggot-infested rubbish store between service trolleys and a nearby fridge; while one witness told of a dementia patient eating old food from the previous night’s trolleys left in a corridor.

Beer, 79, said at the time the evidence presented was the worst she’d heard.

“Without a doubt, and yes I am shocked. Nothing can forgive that and nothing can accept that,” the ABC reported from outside the hearings at the time.

“We owe it to our elderly residents and also those in the community who are alone and no longer cooking for themselves. We need to look after them.”

And indeed she is.

Spurred on by the commission’s findings – which ultimately exposed high rates of malnutrition in older adults living in aged care – Beer is leading an ambitious world-first social experiment to transform the meals and dining experience at an aged care home in Perth, Western Australia.

Maggie Beer’s Big Mission is nothing short of magical.

Over a four-month period across three episodes, Beer and a team of experts reinvigorate the menu, dining rooms, gardens and the “care model” to bring more joy, improve nutrition and wellbeing, and give purpose to the residents.

The aim is to increase the overall quality of life at the home for both the residents and the staff.

“It just breaks your heart because it doesn’t have to be like that. It should never be like that … we have a responsibility to give a good way of life for those in aged care and in the community.”

‘Make every mouthful count’

Beer has a deep connection to the world of food, and traces her passion back to her childhood with parents who were caterers in Sydney.

After moving to the Barossa Valley and setting up the Farm Shop in 1979, she later opened a restaurant specialising in pheasant and paté, and has written seven books and co-authored dozens more.

We know and love her alongside Adelaide chef Simon Bryant in The Cook and the Chef; her regular guest appearances on Masterchef, and as a judge on the Great Australian Bake-Off.

But her legacy may well be when she founded the Maggie Beer Foundation in 2014, with a mission to set new standards to change the food and dining experience in the aged care sector.

Her mantra is “make every mouthful count”.

According to the website, the foundation runs masterclasses for chefs in aged care facilities, offers online skills-based training for aged care cooks, chefs and their managers, along with all the mentoring required to help an older person in aged care.

Inside the aged care facility in WA, their boss Chris Roberts is optimistic Beer and the staff can deliver. Photo: ABC 

‘A blueprint for improving aged care’

So what does Beer’s team do, and are they successful in turning around the aged care facility’s food menu?

The 2010 Senior Australian of the Year works closely with speech pathologist Natalie O’Brien, dietitian Emma Falconer, and the home’s executive chef, Sasanka Peiris, to introduce new recipes high in protein and full of flavour, using fresh ingredients and solid cooking techniques.

She’s guided by occupational therapists and a registered nurse to introduce a buffet-style dining experience as they set about renovating the dining rooms.

As for budget?

After hearing that many aged care facilities operated on a totally inadequate budget of $7 a day, Beer told the commission a reasonable minimum budget would be $10.50 a day per resident but for $14 “you can do really good food”.

She now says this is her most ambitious project to date and the one she will be the proudest of, in the hope that it could provide a blueprint for improving aged care.

“It looks fresh, it tastes fresh, every mouthful counts!”

Maggie Beer’s Big Mission premieres July 9 at 8.30pm on ABC TV and on ABC iview

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