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How a taste of home cooking is bringing comfort to care home residents in Northern Ireland


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Comfort food: Mark Brooks

Comfort food: Mark Brooks

Some of Mark's baking

Some of Mark's baking

Kathy Haskins and Carl Gray

Kathy Haskins and Carl Gray

Tasty selection: Carl’s carrot cake that everyone talks about

Tasty selection: Carl’s carrot cake that everyone talks about

Creme Egg cheesecake

Creme Egg cheesecake

during the Gulf war in 1991

during the Gulf war in 1991

Lemon tart

Lemon tart

Comfort food: Mark Brooks

For those forced to self-isolate in nursing homes, meal times are the highlight of the day. Here, two cooks who specialise in traditional fare tell Linda Stewart how their efforts are so much appreciated.

'We got an email from Prince Charles, thanking the staff for looking after everyone - it was really lovely'

Kathy Haskins (46), originally from Comber, is a house manager at Abbeyfield Belfast's Hamilton House at the King's Road in east Belfast and is married to Carl Gray (33), a chef at Bell Rotary House across the road, a supported living facility run by the same organisation. The couple are isolating together at their home in east Belfast with children Lucy (23), Alex (19) and Alfie (9).

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Kathy Haskins and Carl Gray

Kathy Haskins and Carl Gray

Kathy Haskins and Carl Gray

Kathy says the facilities are like a home away from home.

"You can have your breakfast in your room or in the dining room of both houses - some stay in the room and some come down," she says.

"Then we have morning tea service in the lounge area and for lunch everyone comes to the dining room.

"It's like a community really. For some people, meals are the only contact they will have with others during the day. For some it's their choice and they don't want to take part in activities. Others will come to everything - morning tea, afternoon tea, all the activities - and they're there to give them that company and activity if it they need. One of the key selling points for Abbeyfield is the home cooked meals."

Carl has a background in fine dining and worked in numerous restaurants across the Skandia Group and Carmichael Group, before starting work at Bell Rotary in order to have more of a family life.

"The standard of food in Abbeyfield is absolutely fantastic - the stuff we serve you would pay £10 in a restaurant for. Everything is homemade and made on the premises - in other places, everything is brought in," he says.

Carl even runs training events to pass on his skills to other staff members and has put together a series of cookery factsheets.

Kathy says the outbreak has brought big changes to their roles.

"It kind of changed our jobs to a point where we're all in lockdown now. Sometimes it has been a challenge to source food, but we get a lot of our food from local suppliers, like fruit and vegetables from a shop in Ballyhackamore," she says.

Carl admits it was tricky at the start of the outbreak when people were panic buying.

"In our home, we're feeding 19 people and going through a decent volume of food, so that was difficult," he says.

And Kathy says food is more important now to the residents than ever.

"Even before the pandemic, the food was a big part of their day because there are ones who aren't as active as they once were. They're not out and about every day and the thing they look forward to is their lunch," she says.

"In our house, that's meat, potatoes and two veg and we have a lighter option in the evening - salads, sandwiches, soup, maybe poached eggs. In Carl's house, it's the opposite - they have the light meal at lunchtime."

Kathy says the set-up in the dining room has changed somewhat because of social distancing.

"On some occasions I've had staggered meal times," she says.

But they're really focusing on the treats more during lockdown.

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Tasty selection: Carl’s carrot cake that everyone talks about

Tasty selection: Carl’s carrot cake that everyone talks about

Tasty selection: Carl’s carrot cake that everyone talks about

"Morning tea might have been a plate of biscuits but now it might be carrot cake or raspberry and white chocolate blondies. We try to put that wee bit more thought into the treats," she says. "It's the same with the activities - we would have had wheelchair exercise, gardening, crafts - all those have stopped and the ones who did go out couldn't go out."

Kathy says that while they can't bring people in to run activities any more, they're organising more in house and are finding that more people are going out for walks in the grounds when life indoors gets too much.

"You get that war-time feeling - they come together more," she adds.

"Where some would have been very polite and conservative, they're actually getting to know each other more now."

Carl says his house has had Alexa installed and the residents have begun using the technology when they are stumped over the answer to a quiz question.

"There was one man who likes to keep himself to himself and he came out and asked Alexa 'Tell me the square root of minus one' and it did. He said 'For 75 years I've been waiting for the answer to this question'. He's asked his family to buy him Alexa and I hear him asking questions in his room."

Kathy says staff shifts have been changed to 24-48 hour shifts to reduce the number of people coming and going.

"I can't say this is the best thing that ever happened to us, but thankfully everyone is well and healthy and we've had no cases," she says.

"We're in a wee bubble and the outside world seems like a far distant memory, but we are coping well and the food is a highlight."

Carl says his residents were all out in the garden eating ice lollies in the fine weather.

Kathy adds: "They go out in the garden every Thursday night, clapping and ringing the bells and cheering in the Clap For Carers."

Although families can't visit, the homes have set up a videolink and they have been inundated with donations of treats and pictures from grandchildren.

"We got a lovely email from Prince Charles, thanking the staff for looking after everyone - it was really lovely. We had it laminated and put up for them," Kathy says.

"We have to wear masks and gloves but we're trying to keep their life as normal as possible.

"We gave them special gifts on Mother's Day, trying to make sure special times will still be special. We're trying to make sure they're not forgotten or left out."

‘I’m at the forefront of this crisis and it reminds me of my time catering during the Gulf War’

Councillor Mark Brooks, from Bangor, has been in catering all his life and ran Bow Bells Restaurant and Tea Rooms in Donaghadee until retiring last year.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis he has been working round the clock in a variety of north Down care homes and nursing homes, bringing home cooking and baking to the residents.

The 56-year-old worked for Compass as a manager for years and was working in catering in the Gulf during the war 30 years ago.

"I'm right at the forefront of this outbreak and it reminds me of the crisis 30 years ago in the Gulf where we had the lead-in, the crisis, then the recovery - everything was different after," he says.

"I think this crisis brings the best out of people - all the stuff we are doing in the community, how caring for the vulnerable and our appreciation of the NHS and essential workers."

Mark says he found his days quite long after he retired, but he was approached by Balloo Residential Care Home who were looking for somebody to come in and do some baking.

"I was brought in part-time to set up the kitchen and introduce home baking to the clientele - apple tart, rhubarb crumble - all the things we grew up with and nobody knows how to bake now," he says.

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during the Gulf war in 1991

during the Gulf war in 1991

during the Gulf war in 1991

"Then I was asked to go and help in some of the other care homes on some of my days off. I'm very connected with Abbeyfield House, an independent live-in home.

"It was just at the very beginning of the outbreak, in February and March, and I was asked would I go and help with breakfast, lunch and evening meals.

"I try to make the food as interesting as possible and I would also go out and do a bit of their shopping as well. It's great to go in and make a nice lemon meringue pie or some freshly battered cod. I ask them what they would really like, and go and prepare it for them."

In some of the care homes, residents are self-isolating in their rooms and meal times are the main thing they look forward to, Councillor Brooks says.

"No sooner has breakfast finished than we have the trolley go out with Danish pastries or fresh scones," he explains.

"Some of them are diabetic, so we're always looking to develop recipes and trying to make their diet as attractive as possible.

"For lunch, we might have some turkey and stuffing, things people really like and which are nutritious and good for them.

"In the afternoon there's the bun trolley with apple tart, rhubarb tart or German biscuits. I put on a little ice cream trolley the other day with all the toppings - we're trying to keep everything as normal as possible in this crisis."

Mark says he can't personally approach residents at the moment, but he's been getting very positive feedback about the treats he has been concocting.

"I think they know and appreciate all the caring staff and the owners," he says.

"They are doing everything that they can and it's difficult to get PPE - it took quite a while for all that to come through and I think care homes are at the centre of the storm at the moment. I think after this we will have learned an awful lot."

Lemon tart

Mark says the crisis showed how dependent we all are on supermarkets and has forced many people to start making their own food from scratch. "The generation before us would have survived through a crisis like this a lot better," he says.

He admits he did have some trouble getting ingredients at the start of the outbreak, with supply problems in many outlets, and struggled to get basics like bread at one point.

"I couldn't get a bun case - everybody must have been making buns," he says.

"But it was great to see people on social media showing off their wonderful creations and kids being taught those crafts that have been lost in recent years."

Belfast Telegraph