Two dozen times a year there are stories in newspapers, online, and on television about senior living failures. In order to be newsworthy, they inevitably end with a resident dying or being abused.

The industry responds with silence or by saying, “It’s not that bad; it doesn’t happen that often.”

With the bottom line being that nothing really changes.

Failure Resistant

There are in this world a few industries that are remarkably failure resistant:

  • Nuclear power
  • Air traffic control systems
  • Nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers
  • Mostly the commericial aircraft industry

The question is what makes them different?  It’s a single thing: They are obsessed with failure.

Obsessed With Failure

These “high reliability organizations” are obsessed with failure. They are super sensitive to even tiny failures — maybe even obsessed with them — knowing that this obsession makes it much less likely that bigger failures will happen.

They expect there to be errors — celebrate errors as a way to get better. They also look at past failures as a way of preventing future failures.

“Weird Places”

These are weird places where people are never afraid to speak up about problems and opportunities. They are never afraid that their boss or their boss’s boss will not take them seriously or will punish them for pointing out problems.

In effect, a frontline worker can tell the executive director that they are screwing up, and rather than being punished for it, they will be rewarded for it.

Everyone sees failure as an ever-present risk that needs to be watched for and averted.

What Is Curious

Most of the failures in senior living have nothing to do with safety issues. They are rudeness or indifference from people at the front desk or other staff members. They are seeing trash on the floor and not picking it up, or failing to notice peeling paint. But imagine being obsessed with those things — having a culture where everyone viewed those things as failures to be avoided.

That would flow into things like resident safety: taking the time to ask if the stranger walking through the community should really be there, or even if that staff member you don’t recognize is really a staff member.


When I look at the senior living consumer research, the #1 reason people pick senior living is because they want the added layer of safety that living in a community offers. It is a hard truth that safety is not something we are obsessed with, and we should be. Failure is something we should be obsessed with, but we are not.

Nearly all those horror stories about senior living would not exist if senior living were obsessed with failure, and it would cost very little — maybe net nothing.

This should be an industry obsession.