By Jack Cumming

I met Wendy Smith in a LeadingAge session titled “Aligning Your Organization to Empower Residents.” Meeting Wendy was a highlight of my attendance. She was not on the panel, she didn’t ask a question. But in a quiet moment before the panelists shared their how-to wisdom, I was able to spend time with this remarkable woman. She’s like so many who labor diligently for senior living providers is giving her life to serving residents, passing up alternative opportunities in the process. That’s beautiful.

A Kind-Hearted Human Soul

She sat right behind me, and when I turned to introduce myself, she modestly shared her title: Director of Wellness at Wesley Woods in Athens, GA. I don’t know but she may have been in attendance because LeadingAge met in Atlanta so there was little travel cost. She was clearly there because she wants to be better in her calling. CE credits may have been earned but that was incidental. Wendy is the kind of person who gives credibility to senior living. More succinctly, she’s not only “kind of,” she is kind, and it shows.

Wendy noted positively that I’m a resident. That’s unusual at an industry meeting where many people lose interest when learning that someone is a resident. She asked what I, as a resident, would do if I were in her position. She wants the residents she serves to have richer lives. She’s a good listener, and she knows how to flatter a new passing acquaintance.

Resident Technology

Her question moved me. It’s such a good question. I answered spontaneously on the spot without further thought or deliberation. Here’s what popped into my mind.

First, find a qualified person to be a Resident Technology Assistant. That position works directly with residents to give them the same kind of support that employees typically get from IT staff or a help desk. The myth that residents are over the hill and resistant to technology as well as incapable of learning how to use technologies, that’s just not true.

Of course, residents may have trouble remembering passwords, but don’t we all? They may need repeat reminders until it becomes second nature, but learning is the best way to keep minds young and functioning. Other challenges are remembering which remote goes with which device; which input is the relevant one; coping with insufficient HDMI ports on the TV; joining a Zoom call; etc. etc.

Again, these are things that people of all ages struggle with. How many people know that they can change the number for their personal Zoom room to their cellphone number and their password to something as simple as initials? We’re all learning, and residents are too.

It’s All Life Enrichment

Second, I said to her that she is central to the success of the community where she works because Life Enrichment is the entire purpose of senior living. If the industry doesn’t enrich lives, what’s the value it offers? It’s not enough to merely care for people so they live long past the time when their lives have lost all meaning. It’s high time to step up to give them meaningful, purpose-filled lives.

We commonly say that every employee, and ideally every resident, has to sell the senior living community for it to reach its full capacity. The same is true with life enrichment. For the community to fulfill its purpose, everyone must also be committed to enriching the lives of the residents. If it’s enriching to live in the community, the word will get out. That reputation will drive sales and keep vacancies to a minimum, ideally zero.

Create a Sense of Ownership

Third, to improve the resident experience to be one of life enrichment, change the corporate bylaws to let them be full voting members in the corporation. Residents don’t want to run the place. They’re happy to let provider executives run things with their professional expertise. But, they also don’t want to feel that they are at the bottom of the totem pole behind the C-Suite, the department managers, and the employees. The fear that residents won’t raise rates or refurbish the place to support marketing is no more than a fear engendering myth. In truth, the residents want financial strength and, if they can be given an owner’s mentality, they want the place to look first-rate.

Happy Residents = Happy Employees

Wendy Smith took it all in. It’s not her place to make significant changes. That’s above her pay grade, but she’s not afraid to consider change or to give up a modicum of control so residents can have purpose and know they matter. Moreover, there’s nothing that can help with the workforce challenge more than letting employees know they work for the residents and not for a commandeering corporate leader or for an anonymous corporation with no evident owners.

Happy employees make happy residents and vice versa. That reciprocity is the secret sauce of senior living. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to have childcare available on-premises so parents can come to work without distraction and residents can have the joy of children when, and if, they want that.

Practicalities matter. But nothing is more powerful than the emotional ties that bind staff to residents. People who give their lives in service to residents get their joy from seeing those residents find happiness and purpose. It’s that sense of a calling to serve that lifts the Wendys of senior living to hero status. I feel very privileged to have met Wendy Smith, a truly remarkable woman.