Reaching for excellence with Merrill Gardens

The thing I like most about publishing Senior Housing Forum is that I get to talk to dozens and dozens of senior living professionals every month and let them tell me their stories . . . tell me their hopes and aspirations for seniors, for their companies and for their careers.  While the conversations frequently drift into challenges, even those conversations often flow to how they are creatively solving problems.

A Tiny Subset

That being said, there is a tiny subset of individuals I interact with who are dreamers . . .  They imagine taking their company, their senior communities, to places that can just barely be imagined.  The group includes operators and developers, consultants and vendors.  These leaders inspire me to dream even bigger, to continue to challenge existing ways of doing things.  They inspire me to try new things at Senior Housing Forum . . . to take risks. They give me endless ideas for topics to think about and write about.

Merrill Gardens Leadership Team

I first got acquainted with Tana Gall and Jason Childers about 11 months ago when they made the move from Leisure Care to Merrill Gardens. Our first discussion was quickly followed by a second when Merrill announced they were selling 38 of their communities to Emeritus. I was in Seattle a few weeks ago and got a chance to sit down with Tana and Jason to get an update.   Here is what they had to say:

  • The first goal was to get to every single remaining Merrill building and get to know the community leadership and line staff.  This process took six months but was critically important to building the right culture to create something that feels much more like family.
  • When I asked what things they were most proud of their easy response was new team members and the results of their team building efforts.
  • The new Merrill Culture includes:
    • New branding that will roll out in the very new future.  They are using a local advertising agency, thinking it is the best way to get fresh new innovative ideas.
    • They are spending a lot of time thinking about and doing research, asking the questions: What was Merrill Gardens? What do you want Merrill Gardens  to become?
    • They have spent considerable time exploring what team members are feeling and thinking, because listening is so critical to growing culture.
    • They have spent time seeking out those individuals within the organization who are committed to innovation.
    • They are particularly focused on pushing more responsibility to the local community, making sure they have the tools they need to do the job, and allowing them great freedom to innovate and build their local communities.
    • They are convinced that technology is important to Merrill going forward.  This includes wifi for residents, the best systems to manage sales activities and resident records and having a friendly employee human resource portal.
    • They have focused on some big and little things.  Kind of quirky but surprisingly significant is that they have started removing salad bars from all of their communities.  At one point it was the “cutting edge have-to-have” thing in senior living but, seriously . . . they created a less than excellent dining experience.  Salad bars are not sanitary, it is hard to keep the foods fresh and, for residents using walkers or other assistive devices, it just didn’t make sense.

They have also taken on the one space that is traditionally seen as necessary, but not very important: the employee break room.  Rather than just having a barren room with a table, some chairs, maybe lockers and a bathroom, they have been redone to create a haven where staff on break can actually recharge their batteries. Small things? 

Maybe, but very often it is the small things that make a huge difference. Merrill Gardens is continuing to develop and I wanted to find out how their thinking impacts building design.  Their response was that, overall, they felt that Merrill had a good model and a good mix of unit types and levels of care. 

The focus is really all about creating a program that will meet the needs and desires of the emerging Boomer generation and beyond.  To that extent the goal is to focus the building design around creating the optional program for seniors. What I find so exciting is that Tana and Jason are focused on asking, “What else can we do to create a better experience for residents and staff?”

Steve Moran

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