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When does apple crisp taste like "real" apple crisp? The residents of the McAuley Residence in Kenmore certainly can tell.

After all, they've been eating a crisp made from Amy Tomes' family recipe for some time now. And they've been loving it.

When the facility's new kitchens and dining rooms opened at the beginning of the year, residents were asked to contribute recipes that they had enjoyed and used through the years. The response was good.

Barbara Pasieka, food service coordinator at the 160-bed residence, said she received recipes for old favorites like spaghetti sauce, liver and onions, beef stew, soups and other comfort foods. Some were contributed by the residents themselves, others by their families.

Many recipes originated in time-honored cookbooks.

Amy Tomes said her Apple Crisp came from Betty Crocker, and she had prepared it many times in the past. Her family always enjoyed it.

When the McAuley kitchen staff saw the recipe they expanded it, of course, and even substituted a small amount of oatmeal for flour to add a little fiber.

"I liked it better the other way," Tomes says. But she admits she also enjoys knowing that all the residents at the home were appreciating her idea. The recipe search coincided with the opening of the handsome new family-style kitchens in the McAuley Residence, part of the Catholic Health System. Each is equipped with stainless steel home kitchen-size appliances and granite counter tops. There's a kitchen next to each 40-seat dining room where tables seat from four to six. Waitresses serve the residents, course by course.

This is a departure from the days when the residents were served the food prepared in the kitchen at Kenmore Mercy Hospital.

"Tray service just doesn't cut it anymore," says Kathleen A. Pilarski, Catholic Health System director of food and nutrition for long-term care.

Pilarski goes on to explain that the old-fashioned way of bringing out an entire meal on a tray often turned appetites off. "It was overwhelming."

There are more advantages, too. Since the kitchens immediately adjoin the dining rooms, the aromas of cooking penetrate the air and that seems to increase appetites. The staff has noted a substantial weight gain among residents since January.

Socialization among residents is also up. Although they can choose to eat in their rooms, more residents are turning up in the dining room.

Even though it involves slightly higher labor costs, Pilarski says using the family style dining rooms also saves on supplements. She expects to expand the family style concept to each of the other nine long-term facilities in the Catholic Health System. First will be the OLV Campus in Lackawanna and then will come the new St. Francis Home in Williamsville.

Family style is an important trend in the nursing home industry across the country and many other area facilities are participating already.

Cindy Meyer, food service director at Brothers of Mercy Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Clarence, says the whole idea is to make dining more relaxed.

"It improves appetites," she says. Patient input also plays a big role. "We get lots of feedback and have regular resident committee meetings," Meyer says. "Food is very important."

Elaine Guercio, food service director at Amherst's Weinberg Campus, says the small dining rooms were included when the facility was built. "Now residents don't feel overwhelmed and we can pay more attention to their needs," she says.

In addition, residents in both the assisted living and apartment facilities are often consulted about the menu, she says. A 50 percent to 60 percent response is not unusual.

Chicken wings are often mentioned, Guercio says with a laugh, adding that people in their 80s and 90s don't like to change lifetime eating habits. But apple crisp-type nostalgia plays a big role, also.

That's especially true at holiday time. Many of the residents in the Weinberg Campus are Jewish, Meyer says, and enjoy Passover foods (right now). They crave and are given the special foods for that holiday.

For other residents, Christmas is important. And, of course, those residents are also accommodated.