Cheryl Willis has a difficult task when choosing restaurants for groups of seniors she takes on trips around the state and beyond.
Some seniors want to experience the food of the region they're visiting, while others prefer to stick with simple American fare. Others need gluten-free or vegetarian meals, while some need quiet restaurants to minimize background noise that can interfere with hearing aids.
Still others need easy access to tables and restrooms because of mobility problems or their use of a wheelchair.
As the manager of Whatcom County Council on Aging's tour program, Willis guides groups of seniors on day trips as well as longer trips throughout the country and into Canada. This fall, she will organize trips to the Olympic Peninsula; Branson, Mo.; and upstate New York.
Willis says that despite the divergent needs of her travelers, her task has rarely proved impossible.
While there's no single list of specifications that make up a "senior-friendly" restaurant, there often are features that seniors need to feel comfortable at a restaurant, whether it's in their neighborhood or on the other side of the world.
Willis and others use a few tried-and-true tips to find restaurants where seniors can have an enjoyable and economical meal.
CATERING TO SENIORS
More restaurants are designing their restaurants to meet the needs of seniors. The fastest-growing age group of restaurant diners are 55 to 64, as baby boomers enter retirement, according to a report released this year from the NPD research company.
Younger Americans' share of national restaurant visits have declined because they have trouble finding work and are burdened with student loans and other debt. But baby boomers are increasing their restaurant visits, especially for breakfast and at fast-casual restaurants, such as Panera, according to the report.
So restaurants are working to capture a share of the burgeoning boomer market with more senior menus, senior discounts and other marketing tools.
Willis says simple things, such as making sure a restaurant can write separate checks for members of a large group, and allowing people to split a meal, goes a long way toward helping hungry seniors feel comfortable.
"It's important that servers are going to make sure seniors are attended to and not just breeze through," Willis says. "Something as simple as making sure they're welcome to stay for a second cup of coffee is important."
GO ONLINE FOR MENUS
For tech-savvy seniors, many restaurant menus are just a few keystrokes away. Seniors can easily find restaurant websites online to view menus ahead of time if they are looking for specific foods or menu options.
Some restaurants highlight heart-healthy or low-calorie options on their menus, which can be viewed online.
Willis says some seniors' appetites decline as they age, so senior menus that offer lower cost and smaller plates are important, especially on trips, when seniors don't expect to take a doggie bag home.
The national chain IHOP, as well as Billy McHale's in Bellingham and Blue Mountain Grill in Acme, all offer senior menus.
Restaurant websites also can alert seniors to live music nights, which can interfere with their ability to hold a conversation with friends, especially if they have hearing problems.
Websites also can show the inside of the restaurant, to determine if it is dark or multi-level. Pictures also can present customers and the interior, so seniors can assess a restaurant's atmosphere ahead of time.
CALL ABOUT MOBILITY ISSUES, SPECIAL DIETS
Willis says if she's taking 30 or more seniors to lunch or dinner, she must find a restaurant that can accommodate all of the group on the same floor. She always checks ahead with the manager.
Individuals call restaurants ahead of time, too, if there are issues with, say wheelchair access, or parking access if someone has difficulty walking.
Seniors who need to pay close attention to their diet can call ahead to ask how a dish is prepared. Seniors whose diets are restricted because of diabetes or cardiac-recovery programs often need to stay with their doctor-prescribed diet, even on a special night out.
If seniors are already at a restaurant, they shouldn't be shy about asking, for example, that the vegetable side dish not be served with a heavy sauce. If the server doesn't know or doesn't give a good explanation, ask the server to check with the chef or manager.
"In general, I hear seniors say food is salted too much, or they want to know how much sugar is in an entrée," Willis says. "Sugar ends up in the craziest things, particularly sauces."
CHECK RESTAURANT REVIEWS
Readers can also find short profiles of the reviewers, including their age range. Many of the reviews include comments about the friendliness of servers, the atmosphere and noise level, and the quality of the food.
While Willis uses those websites, she's also a fan of word-of-mouth, and often checks for tips with friends who are experienced travelers as well as foodies. She also checks with visitor centers in the city they will visit for tips about restaurants open Mondays and restaurants that accommodate large groups.
ASK ABOUT DISCOUNTS
AARP membership includes discounts for seniors at many restaurants throughout the country. Seniors also can learn about discounts at couponing.about.com/od/localcoupons/a/seniors_dining.
Even if there isn't a posted senior discount, seniors should ask the server or someone behind the counter if discounts are available. Some restaurants don't advertise senior discounts, but apply a 10 or 15 percent discount when requested, or offer seniors free soft drinks or desserts.
For even greater savings, seniors can sign up online for email coupons to national chains they frequent, or go to restaurant.com to buy discounted gift cards for local restaurants. Check closely for restricted dates or required purchase amounts before using.
Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.