Building Community and Self-Efficacy at Sandford Hotel in San Diego

Guest post from Amanda Bejerano-Ligato, Leah's Pantry Nutrition Educator

In the early 80's, Harvard Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Langer, conducted a study with a group of senior men (70+) which became know as the Counterclockwise Study. Dr. Langer boarded the group in a hotel decorated as if the year were 1959.  During the five day period, the group was only allowed to speak about the 1950's era and the staff was instructed to treat them as if they were twenty years younger. At the end of the five days, the study participants were acting and in many ways feeling as if they were their younger selves.

I was mindful of the Counterclockwise Study when I began facilitating my Food Smarts workshop at Hotel Sandford where residents are low income seniors who live in small hotel rooms converted into apartments, known as a Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) room. None of the rooms have kitchens and most residents barely have enough space for their belongings. 

For the first few workshops, the participants did not know one another and only interacted with strained politeness. In hopes of opening up the group, I provided name tags and began to encourage camaraderie with group activities. It was a slow process. Most of the participants came to the workshop as a place to vent their personal issues revolving around their challenging lives.

When the workshops first began, I would prep the entire recipe at home. During the workshop, I alone would create the meal. This became overwhelming as the number of participants continued to grow. It was becoming impossible to do everything myself in the limited time available for my 1-hour class. The group had to chip in. So, I started by asking participants for help with small, easy tasks: open a can, add spices to my mixing bowl, or wash a vegetable. From the brief interactions I had witnessed during the activities, I felt comfortable encouraging them to take a step further. I tested the waters and slowly began to assign more complex tasks. 

No matter what the task, I acted as if the individual was capable of completing it. And no matter what the outcome, I encouraged and praised the participant for their contribution.

It was then that I noticed how much the members enjoyed taking part in the creation of their meal. From then on I assigned more responsibilities: using the microwave, chopping veggies, blending, mixing, and deciding what they wanted to add or remove from the recipe. Finally, they felt the freedom to create their own meal.

At our most recent workshop, I entered the cafeteria to find a perfectly set-up semi circle with sixteen chairs ready for the event. I was surprised by their forethought and thoughtfulness and yet it was a striking confirmation of how much they had grown. Several of the regular attendees had arrived early and were chatting as they waited for my arrival.

As I looked around the room, I thought to myself, "How did this happen? These couldn't possibly be the same folks I met over a year ago!" I smiled at the group, all of whom cheerfully greeted me and offered their assistance in setting up my station.

Yes, it has taken more than a year to get to the point where every single person is up and ready to wash their hands, pick up a cutting board, and dive into the recipe of the day. But I realized that what happened to these folks is what happened to the group in the Counterclockwise Study: simply by treating them like capable, contributing individuals who can fend for themselves, they began feeling and acting as such.

The Hotel Sandford SRO workshops have become more than a lesson in health and nutrition. The participants' growth and development has been obvious. Residents share healthy food ideas with one another and recreate workshop recipes for family and friends. Moreover, the bond created through the workshops has expanded their relationships with one another outside the classroom. They've become friends who enjoy each others' company.

Amber Fedosh, ElderHelp of San Diego Coordinator at Hotel Sandford, reflected:

"Leah's Pantry is one of the most anticipated monthly activities for the residents. Frequently I am asked 'when will Leah be back?' The instructor, Amanda, engages the residents and makes them eager to share their own tips and ideas for eating healthy and budget-friendly meals. Cultivating a safe place to share ideas, learn about about nutrition, and make a meal with their neighbor has been instrumental to making Hotel Sandford a safe and fun place to live. I've had residents tell me, 'I wish I learned this sooner.' I've had another resident tell me he lost 13 pounds 'eating those pizza things Amanda taught us to make.' Not only has there been positive feedback from the residents, but staff have seen a noticeable shift in residents' behavior. Once standoffish and avoidant, most residents were coming to the Leah's Pantry workshop for the 'free food.' Now, residents are coming early and staying late to chat with their neighbors!"

The residents' enthusiasm, curiosity, and motivation to participate in their own health and dietary changes is consistently growing, and I am excited to see what is in store for us through these workshops in the future!