I have lost count of the number of times that I have used the phrase “unsung heroes” to describe those devoted and committed staff members who work in our elder services organizations. So much of the work we do is behind the scenes, from keeping buildings clean and disinfected to getting the laundry done, from repairing and refreshing the environment to planning activities. Even our front-line staff, the nurses and aides, therapists and social workers, are not highly visible. We don’t do this work for the spotlight, we do it because the care of older adults and the quality of their lives matters to us.
Nowhere is that “unsung hero” label more evident than when we talk about dining. Planning and preparing countless meals in countless forms and iterations to meet individual needs is extraordinarily complex. On top of that, food is often the lightning rod for many things. “It doesn’t taste the way I used to make it/my mother used to make it,” “it’s too cold, too hot, too spicy, too bland.” The list goes on and on. Dining, in a residential setting is the social highlight, often the punctuation in the day and it carries a weight that is far beyond the menu, the food or the service.
It takes a special person to run dining services in an elder care setting and it takes a unique person to see it and live it as a calling. Jean Duroseau was one of those people and it may not be at all a stretch to say that he was one of a kind. Jean was an extraordinarily talented chef. He loved to plan menus, to produce beautiful food, to make dining at Jewish Home Assisted Living a memorable experience. But, more than that, Jean loved the elders, loved caring for them, loved understanding and meeting their needs. When I first met Jean and toured his spotless kitchens, I saw large poster boards on the back of the doors that the staff used to exit the kitchen and enter the dining room. Each board indicated special diets and had the photos and names of each elder who fell into that category. Jean explained to me that he did not want the wait staff to have to ask or the elder to have to tell them that they were lactose intolerant, gluten-free, diabetic, low sodium etc. He wanted the staff to know and to make that process seamless and dignified.
Jean asked every new elder, and their family, what their favorite foods were and even what they liked to eat for breakfast. He had every brand of cereal and breakfast food you can imagine in his kitchen and knew who wanted what and how much they wanted. One morning I went over to help with breakfast, while we were doing some work in the building and had to temporarily relocate our dining room. He told me specifically which person wanted half a bowl of oatmeal and blueberries but not strawberries. He told me who needed me to wait until they finished their juice before I served them coffee because they liked their coffee steaming hot and it should not be poured too early. He did that with everyone, not just the elders. My mint tea would appear at my elbow any time I sat down for a meeting and every meal would end with my favorite of his cookies.
While that kind of attention to detail is the sign of a caring and committed chef, it was just one aspect of who Jean was. There were those who found him intimidating in his perfectionism and high expectations but the truth is that, beneath that sometimes gruff exterior, was a man with an enormous heart, who would do anything for anyone, especially our elders.
For the last couple of years many of us asked Jean about his health. He didn’t look well and he had lost a lot of weight. True to form, he shrugged it off and continued to work, continued to demand the highest standards, continued to make our elders his priority. He managed the difficult days of COVID, transitioning from dining room to room service and, now, thankfully, back again. And on his last day at work, just 10 days before he died, when he was clearly too ill to carry on, he left the building still giving directions about how to cover the kitchens and make sure that dining for the elders was not disrupted.
We talk about saying thank you, about recognizing those unsung heroes who give of themselves unstintingly, who give without seeking praise, who give with their whole hearts. Jean was not just one of those people, he was remarkable among a group of remarkable people. His memory will live on in all of us and truly, always, be a blessing.