Safer cooking options for seniors in assisted living

Michael Chotiner
Michael Chotiner

Whether in independent living or in an assisted care facility, there's no reason for residents to give up cooking for guests, especially if preparing meals is something they enjoy. Cooking keeps the mind stimulated, and the end results nourish our bodies.

In a checklist for "Evaluating Communities," the Assisted Living Federation of America recommends that individual assisted living apartments have a "kitchen area provided with a refrigerator, sink, and cooking element." Likewise, a recent report by the American Institute of Architects asserts that two-thirds of the award-winning projects in this category of design have a "country-style kitchen and dining area" just for access by private residence apartment dwellers, to foster a "household" style environment.

Yet, despite the quality of life that cooking provides, kitchens can be a dangerous place for elderly people. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reports people over the age of 65 have two-and-a-half times greater risk of perishing in a kitchen fire than the general population.

Cooktops and ranges are most frequently implicated in kitchen mishaps. The most frequent causes of kitchen fires and injuries among the elderly are:

  • Putting foods on the stove to cook, then leaving them unattended.
  • Losing track of cooking times.
  • Forgetting to turn burners off after removing pans.
  • Setting down pot holders and dish towels too close to burners.
  • Attempting to clean cooktop surfaces before they've cooled.
  • Allowing grease to build up on cooktop surfaces.

The risk of cooking accidents caused by inattention and forgetfulness is roughly equal for both gas and electric cooktops. Electric hot plates, which many residents use in their private quarters for heating water and snacks, are also associated with significant risks for both fire and electrocution. Heating coils draw a lot of power and can overheat wiring, while switches in old, often-used hot plates can malfunction, leaving the appliance energized even with the switch in 'off' position.

Induction cooktops, which operate with a different technology than either gas or electric stoves, offer features that make them safer and easier for seniors to use. Rather than depending on flames or hot coils, induction cooking elements heat pots and pans with magnetic fields. Only the cookware gets hot, not the cooking surface, reducing the risk of accidental fires and burns.

Along with reducing these risks, induction cookers offer these benefits:

  • They heat faster and can cut cooking time
  • Their controls offer faster response, more precise temperature setting.
  • Because the heating function works only when cookware is directly within the induction element's magnetic field, burners turn off automatically when the pots and pans are removed from the cooking surface.
  • The cooking surface never gets hot enough to ignite paper, fabrics or grease on or near it.
  • While the cooking surface heats up slightly from contact with cookware, it never gets hot enough to burn users if touched.
  • They're easier to clean; spills don't get cooked onto their sleek ceramic surfaces.
  • They're more energy efficient.

Induction cooking appliances have been available since the early 1950s, but they're only now becoming popular in institutional and home kitchens. Stationary induction cooktops with two to four burners have the same wiring requirements as ordinary electric stoves-that is, a dedicated 240-volt circuit protected with 40-amp breakers. Portable single- and double-element "induction plates"-equivalent to hot plates that plug in to 120-volt outlets-are also available.

Cooking with an induction unit is a little different from cooking with gas or an ordinary electric stove. For one thing, the metal in the cookware must contain at least some iron or steel. Generally speaking, cast iron, enameled cast iron and some stainless steel pots and pans will work well.

Induction cook times are generally faster than those of conventional burners. Heating starts instantly, and water, for example, boils in less than half the time it might take with conventional burners. People accustomed to cooking with gas or conventional electric may have to change their process and timing a bit to adapt to induction cooking.

While induction cooking might involve a slight learning curve, there's no arguing that it makes for a safer, healthier, more energy-efficient environment within eldercare settings. Fire and burn risks are greatly reduced. Risks associated with gas-namely, undetected leaks and carbon monoxide byproducts of combustion-are eliminated. Kitchens stay cooler, too, since heat is concentrated more efficiently in the cookware with little or no loss to room air. That means greater comfort and lower energy bills.

Induction cooking may be the right choice for your facility, and it can "sweeten the pot" for potential clients.

Michael Chotiner is a longtime construction expert who writes often about topics of interest to seniors for The Home Depot. Michael has run his own construction business, and is a master carpenter. To view induction cooktop models like the ones Michael writes about, visit www.homedepot.com.

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