If you have worked in senior living for any length of time, you know that resident engagement is of paramount importance. We camp on that concept and its meaning, then constantly seek to flesh it out in everyday practice. As someone who spent the early part of my career in activity programming, the idea of engaged residents with a great quality of life is ingrained in every fiber of my being. I wholeheartedly believe it to be the secret to success for any organization looking to make their mark upon the lives of seniors today. 

Engaged or Just Busy?

But recently I’ve found myself going through somewhat of a paradigm shift with regard to this concept of resident engagement. It started with my own busy schedule coupled with some observations of one of my most “engaged” residents. 

With the holidays upon us, it often means a flurry of busyness and with that an oft harried manner as we seek to accomplish so many things in those few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In our community, we’ve got seven large holiday events, resident gifts to purchase, Christmas cards to order, a staff party to engineer, managers breakfast, and in-between several move-ins as well as all the daily demands that come standard with running a community. It feels quite overwhelming some days. And that’s just the work side of life during these few weeks. At home I’ve got three children to shop for, items to bake, decorations to put up, and a thousand other things that go along with this festive season. Frankly, by the end of these days I am happy just to crawl into bed and go to sleep.

Retreating to Recharge

While I love these holidays and even some of the craziness they bring, I find myself longing to sneak away and have some quiet time to reflect upon life, this special season, and to recharge. I need this time in order to function as I ought within all the varying realms of my life. I’m content during the season just to step away from the chaos and enjoy the solitude. I cherish those snippets of time in whatever length they may come. 

One of my residents seems to feel much the same way I do about those solitary, quiet times. Since he moved to our community several months ago he has settled into his apartment, spends much of his time reading, occasionally runs errands, and generally keeps to himself. He moved from another community where he had been quite vocal and sometimes just plain difficult.

A few of my staff members had known him in this setting. And while they professed that he was a very nice man, they were candid about how tough he could be at times. Since he’s been with the us, I’ve waited to see that “tough” side emerge, and it has yet to happen. He comes to the dining room with some of his reading material and eats by himself, perusing his periodicals as he consumes his food. He does not come to any group activities, and is not active on the resident council or known to go on any outings. Yet, despite his lack of active participation, I am thoroughly convinced that he is one of our most actively engaged residents. 

The Proof Is in the Jelly Beans

Jelly BeansI am persuaded of his engagement because of a large Costco-sized jar of jelly beans. I know it sounds silly, but let me explain. Periodically, this resident will come see our business office manager and bring her a large jar of candy or nuts; the most recent one contained multi-flavored jelly beans. He shared with her that he was bringing them to her for all the staff as a token of his appreciation, a way of letting us know just how happy he is in our community. He has expressed repeatedly to our staff that he is happy in our community. Satisfied. Content. ENGAGED

This hit me recently as I was thinking about him and how he’s so happy with us, despite his lack of presence in our organized activities. When we tour prospects I’ve often said that people are free to be as involved or uninvolved as they’d like in the community happenings. But in practical terms I’ve always pushed for participation and doing things. After all, there has to be some thing on the calendar that everyone should try, right?

I used to think so, but this resident is proving me wrong. He’s not a “joiner” in any sense of the word and yet he is plugged into life as he wants to experience it; thus he is by definition engaged. A family member of another of our residents shared with me recently that her aunt has never come to family holiday gatherings as she chose to reflect upon life and spend that time alone. She relished those times and made no bones about the fact that she enjoyed the solitude.

Sometimes Things Are Not What They Seem

In my own life, I covet those times when I can be alone with my thoughts and prayers and have time to be still and quiet. To me that is one of the ways I can truly engage in life. And I believe it is much the same with some of our residents. Instead of spending our time cajoling and trying to entice everyone to come to activities, we need to remember that we are seeing individuals, and what is engaging for one may not be the same for another. We must know who resides in our communities so we can encourage them rightly; not into cookie-cutter activities that we insist they must like, but in daily endeavors that they really enjoy. Even if that means sitting in the sun, or quietly enjoying a good book. What might not look like much to us may indeed be just the opposite; a vehicle through which they can remain actively engaged in this life.