By Jack Cumming

Our world has changed forever. The shock of the pandemic shook people out of complacency. And it has given us not only the distress of 2020 but also the rapid change that promises to make the decade of the 2020s a decade of opportunity.

The senior living service that may have been most severely impacted by COVID-19 is the mission of life enrichment. To bring people together for better living and to counter isolation and loneliness. In the last decade, the industry rebranded “activities” as “life enrichment.” In the 2020s let’s rebrand “life enrichment” again as “life empowerment.” We can make senior living attractive by moving beyond today’s arts, crafts, and fitness concept of enrichment toward a new concept of empowerment.

Marketing’s Best Friend

Too often, life enrichment, by whatever name, is something that is viewed as a necessary cost center for senior living. It’s not surprising that it’s often cost squeezed. This offers enrichment staff few opportunities for advancement and requires approaching residents as though they need to humor them with positivity. Communities fill messaging with bon mots like, “Life is better while laughing” or “When you fill your mind with positive thoughts, your life will start to change.”

Despite this approach, life enrichment is marketing’s best friend. When people want to know why they should come to your community, you can tell them, “We offer housing – nice apartments with welcoming common areas; care services – we take pride in meeting needs 24/7 every day of the year;” but those elements are necessities. Shoppers expect that as a minimum. What can make the sale is the community life that brings residents together and makes them feel good about themselves.

Importance of Relationship

This value of relationship and community extends throughout life. People of all ages and conditions have a need to give love and to feel loved. James Lee, Corporate Director of Sales for Aventine Senior Living, tells a moving story from when he was an Executive Director with a memory care unit.

A woman there was stricken with Alzheimer’s and near her end. She had two utterances that remained to her. One was, “Help me,” and the other was, “I love you.” Near her end, James was with her. She didn’t recognize him, but she said, “Help me.” He told her, “I’m here to help you with love and care.” She lit up and responded, “I love you.” It was that feeling of a loving relationship that was the help she needed.

This is like the story that Kim Campbell, the widow of Glen Campbell, the singer of “Rhinestone Cowboy” and other hits, tells of her journey with her husband through the torments of Alzheimer’s. It was near Mother’s Day and a sign on a gift shop reminded people to remember loved ones with a gift. He wanted to buy something to honor Kim, but his mind was no longer cooperating.

He remembered that she loved pink. So, he told his companion that he was buying something pink for Kim. As he approached the cash register, Kim showed up, and gently took the bottle of Pepto Bismol® that he was buying from him and put it back on the shelf. He looked stricken. Later, she found out what he had intended, and it broke her heart.

Effective Life Empowerment

What would be the components of a Life Empowerment approach? As a starter, the function which seems to be most neglected, yet in my observation does the most to enhance resident relationship and fulfillment, is a Resident Technology Assistant to help residents with their televisions, smartphones, Alexa and other devices, internet connectivity, Zoom meetings, and much more. This quickly becomes more than a full-time position. Giving residents technology know-how spares them from isolation and from seeing themselves as comical in their dotage. It enhances resident self-worth. That’s huge.

The role of Resident Relations to help new residents get settled and to work with long term residents to understand their wishes and help them find satisfaction is likewise huge. A good Resident Relations Counselor works proactively with residents, checking in to see if there are any concerns that can be readily alleviated.

Many residents are reluctant to complain for fear of management disapproval. But their complaints have credibility in the wider community and can impact marketing if they fester and go unaddressed. It’s particularly important for all residents to feel that promises made to induce them to move in have been fully kept with integrity.

Too often, life enrichment degrades into “Momma knows best,” with counsel like “get involved”, “lose weight”, or “get as fit as a Fitness Coach.”  Residents can, and should, decide for themselves whether to pursue wellness or a more relaxed lifestyle. A good life empowerment program provides administrative, budget, and scheduling support to residents initiating groups and activities. Too often life enrichment staff act as though they have to be the ones to initiate all activities to help their performance reviews. Life empowerment is a big step up from life enrichment. Empowerment makes residents more self-sustaining, more independent, and more self-confident.

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The Executive Director is Key

Above all, the key to success for senior living lies in the talent and relationship capability of the Executive Director. Although senior living organizations are still usually hierarchical with supervisors, directors, executive directors, regional managers, central office functionaries, and on up to the C-Suite, the key position is that of the Executive Director.

A great Executive Director balances the housing, caring, caregiving, and community aspects of senior living. That requires mentoring staff, helping them to achieve their dreams, and relating to residents, ensuring that their needs come first. In years past the mantra for business success was “the customer is always right.” Today, customers are sometimes seen as unreasonable or troublesome, which leads to intimidation and a declining reputation. We need to restore the idea of servant leadership.

Moving In or Moving On

The expertise of life empowerment specialists in senior living gives heart, life, and relationship to the communities that they serve. To move from a life enrichment concept toward life empowerment requires flexibility and responsiveness. For these Alzheimer’s sufferers, it involves caring and loving and responding appropriately. For prospects considering moving in and for their families, it can mean something entirely different. Getting that difference right can result in a move-in instead of a prospect moving on.

Culture Is Confining

To create a living experience of empowerment, the culture of senior living will have to change from the caregiving perspective of nursing home administrators toward the empowerment perspective of motivational coaches. Customer expectations are changing in response to the digital revolution. Some senior living enterprises will adapt and prosper. New enterprises, with new approaches, will emerge and also prosper. Many of today’s communities, however, are likely to continue with a centrally-directed paternal culture serving a dwindling resident population.

Already senior living is transforming from the faith-centric industry of the past, led by clergy, toward a consolidated industry led by business administrators. Whether the transformative thinking of the entrepreneurial mind will change the industry to keep pace with the rapid change of market expectations remains to be seen.

It’s clear that senior living in 2030 will be vastly different from that in 2020. Will it even be senior living? That’s a big question. Will it still be age-segregated? Maybe not. Will management be more responsive to customers? Probably. Will life empowerment then be central? It seems likely.

Local is All That Matters

Regardless of what direction change may take, delivery of services and quality in local communities will continue as central to success. National organizations succeed or fail not in their corporate offices but at the local level. That’s why the position of Executive Director is critical to senior living. The Executive Director determines the tone of a community in the locale where it exists. The local staff led by a responsive Executive Director is the main interface residents, prospective residents, and their families have with the senior living organization.

This local experience and the resulting local reputation determine whether an enterprise and an industry are growing and thriving or the reverse. In this context, it’s life empowerment that can make the difference between a devolution toward higher and higher acuity senior care or a vibrant active community with residents who encourage their friends to move in.