The Meatball Stoppe becomes first restaurant in Central Florida to offer specialized service
The Meatball Stoppe owners and chefs Isabella and Jeff Morgia personally know the difficulties faced by caregivers and families who struggle with the challenges of dementia. One can be the difficulty in eating out at restaurants. So, when the Morgias were approached with the idea of creating Central Florida’s first dementia-friendly dining option each Thursday, they were all in.
“We have had three family members who have suffered and/or are currently suffering through this terrible disease of Alzheimer’s, so we personally know firsthand how this condition impacts the patients and their families,” Isabella said. “That’s why we want to make The Meatball Stoppe a place of comfort, a place that perhaps will remind them of home while feeding them a wonderful meal at the same time.”
The Morgias were lead in establishing the offering by Dennis Dulniak, EdD, a retired University of Central Florida Registrar, the care partner for his wife, Nancy, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s and was placed in a memory care community a year ago.
Dulniak had been visiting The Meatball Stoppe for several years, and Isabella knew that Nancy has Alzheimer's.
“She and Jeff are just the most heartwarming welcome, loving owners of a neighborhood restaurant that I've ever met,” Dulniak said. “I learned their family has had members who had passed on from Alzheimer's and they're currently a caregiver for one family member. When my son shared a story out of the Washington Post about a restaurant in Huntington, W.Va., that became dementia-friendly, it all clicked. Why couldn't we bring this to Orlando and why couldn't it start with The Meatball Stoppe? I am absolutely astounded at their attitude of being able to make this happen in Orlando and to be the first restaurant. I am very, very proud of them and I wish them great success.”
Dulniak, the founder of Central Florida Dementia-Friendly Dining, teamed up with Toni Gitles, Certified Caregiving Consultant and Educator with Heart Light Enterprises and Edith Gendron, Chief of Operations with the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Resource Center to help provide personnel training, schedule and publicizing. The group anticipates opening similar programs with other restaurants in upcoming months.
Also vital to the effort, Dulniak said, has been the coordination and support with the Senior Resource Alliance (Area Agency on Aging of Central Florida) and the Dementia Care and Cure Initiative (Florida Department of Elder Affairs). These groups work toward creating enhanced dementia-friendly communities with services and support in place to make that community hospitable to people living with dementia, their care partners, and loved ones.
“Edith is the key person who trained the personnel at The Meatball Stoppe,” Dulniak said. “Then she's also going to be training Toni and me as future trainers of restaurant personnel. There are differences in terms of what services need to be delivered to families who have loved ones with dementia.”
Ideally, restaurants that become labeled dementia-friendly will have a back room so they can have a more controlled environment away from the public. Another consideration is if the restaurant has a slow period of the week when they would be willing to set aside that back room that can become a dementia-friendly dining room.
“I'm really interested in expanding this into as many communities as we can, not only in Orlando, but around Central Florida,” Dulniak said. “The dining doesn’t even have to be at night. It could just be a period of time between 2 and 5 p.m. when business is slow. But I want it to be a consistent day and time, whether it's one day a month or one day a week. I want the managers to be willing to have us come in and train their personnel on the differences and what is important in serving customers with dementia and then treating their family with the respect that we need to have happen.”
Another goal of the effort is to reduce the stigma of dementia and Alzheimer's. He sees the program as not just creating awareness and compassion, but helping people understand that they need to be much more careful with their loved ones and create positive memories.
Nancy was employed as a librarian at the Florida A&M University (FAMU) Law School when she started having memory issues that affected her job. She loved books but started reading less and less. In 2014, she retired.
“I didn't get her mild cognitive impairment (MCI) checked out before retirement, and that was a major mistake,” Dulniak said. “I teach other people to do it if they're having memory issues because MCI is a disability, and she could have gone on long-term disability and not retired from FAMU.”
Dulniak retired at the same time when they were both 62. He felt their time together was more important than continuing to work. They wanted to have quality experiences and travel while they still could. During that time, they worked hard to get her some cognitive training by putting her in a brain fitness club and participating in eight different drug trials trying to hold off the disease that was coming. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in February of 2015 when she was 63 years old. She is currently 68.
Dulniak placed her in a memory care community because he felt even with hiring people to help, she was not getting the care she needed.
“It was highly stressful,” he said. “That is why I decided it would be a great benefit if the family and caregivers of people with dementia could take their loved ones out in a friendly environment that's safe. The idea is that there will be a controlled environment where they can create quality memories again and can continue life in a positive manner with activities as simple as eating out.”
Training employees includes providing quick tips on what's necessary in serving these special needs.
Dulniak has a passion to make this happen because he knows how important it is for him to take his wife out. “I know her levels of agitation and how that comes and I think it's very, very helpful to have restaurants lined up that would be able to provide this kind of special needs service.”
He has had family members of other special needs people come to him and ask, "Why can't we do it for dyslexia? Why can't we do it for autism?”
While the Mediterranean diets are definitely favorable for brain health, that's not necessarily the American way. And as a person progresses with dementia, it's a matter of keeping adequate nutrition as weight loss can be a problem.
“I'm interested in having them enjoy what they're eating,” he said.
There is interest in making Orlando a Blue Zone City, cities that have programs in place to enhance health and longevity. Dulniak said the dementia-friendly dining would fit in nicely with that effort.
The Meatball Stoppe is open for Dementia-Friendly Dining from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the restaurant located at 7325 Lake Underhill Road at Goldenrod.
For the menu visit: The Meatball Stoppe.com/menu.
For more on dementia-friendly dining visit:
If you would like to assist in the development and expansion of dementia-friendly dining throughout Orlando and Central Florida by volunteering your skills, services, resources or other means, please contact Dennis Dulniak EdD, firstname.lastname@example.org, 407-592-6670 (mobile).