Seniors with wine and food gathered around a table

Food for Thought: Two Of Our Many Directors Make Senior Life More Than Just Palatable

Capital Senior Living is about family. Our employees are our family. Our residents are our family. Their adult children are our family. It’s that sense of family that makes us different and helps us rise to the top in the senior living industry. While none of us may be related by blood, it’s our passion, our dedication and our loyalty that have bound us since 1990. Whether you are a past, present or future member of our family, we want you to feel like a part of it right now. In the coming weeks, you will meet a few more of the many people who embody our spirit of family. We have already introduced you to an Executive Director and Maintenance Director who help make us unique. Continue to Discover the difference with Capital Senior Living.

Meet Don Bitter, Director of Food Services at Summit Point

Healthy vs. hearty. Dinner vs. dessert. Bitter vs. sweet. While each of these choices may seem easy to make when it comes to dining on a daily basis, the 151 residents at Summit Point might feel a bit differently when asked about the latter selection.

That’s because they’re treated to chef-prepared meals by Don Bitter, who whips up comforting entrees, decadent desserts and enticing delicacies at their Independent Living, Assisted Living and Memory Care community in Macedonia, Ohio. The Director of Food Services has transformed a daily ritual into a fine restaurant experience, churning out grilled or baked salmon, roast stuffed chicken, pot roast, a special “mystery lunch” that is anxiously anticipated each month — and, yes, even the regular sugar-free pies, cookies and cakes that residents and colleagues alike can’t get enough of.

“Eating is fun. We all do it. We all need it. That’s what makes this such a fun occupation for me,” Bitter says, taking a quick breath before passionately continuing about the profession that’s consumed his life for more than 43 years.

Bitter has all of the right ingredients when it comes to the senior living industry. Prior to joining Summit Point five years ago, he had prepared meals for celebrities, worked in exclusive hotels and private country clubs and even owned a restaurant. His degrees in hospitality management, business and nutrition seamlessly blend with his outgoing personality and core philosophy of “having a lot of fun called work.”

Food is truly a focal point at Capital Senior Living communities, and that’s a fact that Bitter doesn’t take lightly whether he’s putting together a menu in the northern part of the Buckeye State or helping to cater at a neighboring Capital Senior Living property. His culinary masterpieces all come from the heart, with his passion and desire to teach a healthy lifestyle easily palatable in every meal he creates. “I eat it and I preach it.”

His community’s “scratch” kitchen is his playground, and it also serves as the heart of the “household.” Residents have plenty of opportunities to interact with their on-site chef. A dining committee composed of 10 seniors on a panel talk with him about how to put together food programs, special events and those lunches that require a sign-up sheet because a surprise is always in store. Bitter also meets one on one with new residents when they arrive to educate them about their dining options and inquire about special dietary needs — something he also takes very seriously.

“Summit Point is a higher-end community, so residents have dined in nice places and traveled abroad, so they expect their palates to be pleased. The food at retirement communities often carries a stigma of being very institutional. My goal is to deliver great food in a good atmosphere while on a budget.”

And that means delivering some of his residents’ most desired treats: Louisiana-style crab cake sandwiches and appetizers, stuffed peppers, short ribs cut down in house, scallops, and that mystery meal that came directly from Cape Cod. Yes, that Cape Cod that’s 700-some miles from Macedonia. Even when Bitter is on vacation, he’s thinking about his residents. He recently took a trip to the hook-shaped peninsula and brought back 25 pounds of halibut that he prepared for a special feast that had seniors clamoring for more.

While Bitter says it’s “kind of a compliment” when he sees new residents savoring his fare, it can also be a double-edged knife when they begin to pack on the “senior 15” — similar to the freshman 15 when teens indulge in all of the good food available to them at the start of college. He admits that seniors eat a lot of dessert at lunch and dinner — yes, the sugar-free pies, cookies and cakes crafted in Bitter’s corner of the community. “But we control some of their intake with the ingredients we use, so it’s not like they are store bought.” Gravies and sauces for their tender, flavorful meats also rank fairly high on the food pyramid when it comes to the not-so-healthy desires of residents. As long as they are on the 80/20 plan — that’s healthy fare to junk food — Bitter says he’s happy.

“I have a connection with all of our residents, and not just on a business level. They love it when I share foods with them.” And that’s why Bitter has shared two of his prized recipes: one for his famous crab cakes and one for his delectable cheesecake.

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Meet Karen Burchell, Activities Director at West Shores

Karen Burchell doesn’t horse around when she’s planning activities and outings for her family of 130.

The Activities Director at West Shores in Hot Springs, Arkansas knows how much her seniors appreciate their regular dominoes, Skip-Bo and bingo, but it’s organizing their special in-house events and group excursions that really gets her pulse racing — especially when it involves anything at the thoroughbred horseracing track about six miles away. Karen has trained horses in the past, and it’s a passion of hers that she loves to share with residents whenever she can. Whether watching a live race at Oaklawn Racing & Gaming or going behind the scenes to see what happens in the barn area, “It makes my residents happy, which makes me happy.”

On a past trip to Oaklawn, Karen hosted a bus load of EZ Riders — the nickname of the West Shores bus—for a special event to recognize a West Shores Resident who is the oldest living jockey—on record. He has lived at West Shores for several years, and Karen organized an event to recognize him. Employees volunteered to assist him to the track, and onto the actual race track where dozens of horse racing owners, trainers and friends greeted and thanked him for his life’s service and involvement in the sport. The local and national horse racing newspapers wrote several articles about the recognition of this special man. He was so moved that West Shores, and Karen especially—acknowledged this special place in his life.

The bus was actually Karen’s ticket into a job at the Independent Living and Assisted Living community. Her children went to school with Nina Alter, the property’s Executive Director, and she had heard that a part-time bus driver was needed to shuttle residents to and from doctor appointments, monthly restaurant outings to Longhorn Steakhouse and a Chinese buffet — among the seniors’ favorites — and other activities. She applied and quickly realized the community would become her second home. “I was not expecting the promotion to Activities Director when the previous director retired.” And now, it’s been 10 years.

“It truly is a great place to work,” Karen says. “When you see the longevity of employees, it’s a good community.”

Convincing new residents to become “social” in this close-knit community can be one of Karen’s biggest challenges, but her Southern hospitality truly shines through. “I don’t bother them much when they first come in, but then I just start listening. Little by little they start talking, and then I start talking and visiting with them to share all of the amazing history of their lives and how much they can bring to the wonderful life they have here. We recognize that this is our residents’ home, and we see that and treat them like that.”

It’s the smallest touches, too, that go a long way. Like singing happy birthday at lunch because “none of us can sing.” Like organizing a ministry that a particular senior hopes to participate in. Like having that favorite newspaper or magazine stocked in the community’s library.

She beams with excitement when she tells the story of a resident who, upon first arriving, would not participate in any gatherings in the activity room, atrium, café, game room or TV room. During a special Drums Alive session, Karen said she noticed that this particularly shy senior was discretely tapping along to the music ringing through the community as her peers rhythmically tapped drumsticks on big plastic balls as part of the Golden Beats program. “I walked up to her and handed her some drumsticks, and low and behold, she smiled and started making music. I will not forget that.”

The smiles and excitement from residents keeps Karen smiling and shining. “When seniors talk about activities and I hear from their families that they are sharing with them about what we do here, it energizes me and makes me want to plan more.” 

More means an AARP driver safety course, a volunteer appreciation luncheon or resident lunch outing. A tour of Garvan Woodland Gardens or the lake. A flute ensemble performance or a recital from a 5-year-old violinist. A book signing. Those are just a small sampling of events residents have participated in this year. Many additional adventures are planned in the coming weeks and months, too, thanks to Karen. These activities complement the already full calendar of exercise classes, worship services, and Netflix movie nights — just about anything except ones with gore — that entertain and stimulate residents on a daily basis. “I have to make things fun for them!”

Family members and loved ones are always invited to sit in with residents and are reminded that the West Shores community, just like all Capital Senior Living properties, has a “Community Life” page with a monthly newsletter and weekly calendar that hosts all activities and upcoming events.