At OLLI, Better Meals Make for Better Friendships for Seniors Who Have Lost a Spouse

Instructor Sheri Branson (right) and OLLI member Dr. Mike McLeod prepare for a potluck dinner on May 31, the culmination of the “What’s Cooking” class, which met at Watts Street Baptist Church.
Instructor Sheri Branson and OLLI member Dr. Mike McLeod prepare for a potluck dinner on May 31, the culmination of the “What’s Cooking” class, which met at Watts Street Baptist Church. Photo by Stuart Wells

Sheri Branson, a physical education instructor at Duke, has a strong memory of watching her mother, who lives in Utah, start skipping meals and ordering fast food after her husband died four years ago. That memory has inspired her recent continuing studies cooking class targeted for seniors who had lost a spouse.

Her mother’s experience isn’t unusual.  There’s research, Branson said, showing that seniors who have lost a spouse have a higher risk of being malnourished.

Branson’s concern for her mother’s nutrition made a difference. “Watching my mother, I realized there are so many things that she could do that would improve her health,” she said.

“They all have something to offer each other. It’s just been amazing watching them all together.”
-- Sheri Branson

Branson led the spring-term class in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke, which combined cooking lessons, instruction on nutrition and lots of time for socializing. She prepared a menu for each week’s class meeting, aiming “not to be a gourmet meal but something very healthy,” with easy-to-find and affordable ingredients.

The class met at Watts Street Baptist Church, where a large round table in the fellowship hall conveniently offered space for all eight participants. While Friday was selected for convenience, Branson said it recalled cherished date nights for many of the OLLI students.

“It has become this beautiful community” gathered for a shared meal, Branson said. She trimmed her 30-minute presentations down to about five minutes to free up more time for table conversation, including reflections on care giving and dealing with grief.

“They all have something to offer each other. It’s just been amazing watching them all together,” Branson said.

Each of her recipes – from pasta with meatballs to fish tacos to curried vegetables – serve two people, and thus are ideal for sharing with a friend, neighbor or family member.

Dr. Mike McLeod, a retired Duke physician and med school professor, said he had only really cooked when he and his late wife Anita were on their sailboat. “After cooking for myself for over two years I was getting bored with my meals.”

“I had assumed there would be more men challenged who would be in the group,” he said, noting that more women signed up. Two of the women said that their late husbands had done most of the cooking.

Visiting the penultimate class, the sense of community was apparent.  One students asked to get everyone’s contact information. The discussion quickly turned to finding a way for the group to continue to meet. The plan is for the group to explore new Durham restaurants and dishes they might not normally try.

“Sheri is unique in her interest, her enthusiasm and her knowledge of nutrition,” McLeod said. “She put so much into the class.”