By Jack Cumming

Without life enrichment, senior living has no purpose. The job of the organization is to make life better for residents. The question prospective residents have to answer is, “Will my life be better after I move into [Your Community] Senior Residence than it will be if I stay put or make another choice?”

Resident Technology Assistance

Too often management thinks of life enrichment as a necessary cost to keep residents busy, entertained, and amused. The pandemic has shown us a new view of the importance of enrichment as central to occupancy, satisfaction, reputation, and mission fulfillment. Where I live, we saw that value take off when a Resident Technology Assistant was added to the staff. While the traditional life enrichment function scrambled creatively to come up with artsy activities to keep residents busy, the residents kept the Resident Technology Assistant busy.

It’s clear that the times are changing. The modern resident is looking for meaning. The traditional notion of life enrichment as activities that are equally fun for children and old people is giving way to a new concept. This requires rethinking life enrichment to promote the core mission for which the senior living enterprise exists. It requires following the resident customer to meet emerging expectations. Technology engagement is a big part of those expectations. That’s been true for several years, but now it’s becoming critical for senior living’s future.

The conventional wisdom is that the very old are technology resistant. In our case, that proved not to be true, and more and more residents, including the least likely, reached out to the Resident Technology Assistant to help them connect with family, activities, and the wider world that beckoned. It’s not that residents don’t want the benefits of technology. It’s that they haven’t been given the same level of support that corporations give to staff. Of course, these experiences are most often delivered by conventional computers, many of which are incredibly dated. Obsolescence has a different time perspective for people who think that a ten-year-old computer is still new.

The most successful deployments for the very old proved to be Alexa devices. The Alexa Echo Show allowed couples separated by care levels, though still tantalizingly near in the same building, to connect. The Alexa “Drop-In” function is perfect for those with cognition challenges or frailty that prevents even phone conversations. Technology has become central to the residential experience during the pandemic. That’s life enrichment writ large.

Centrality of Life Enrichment

Perhaps because life enrichment has traditionally been viewed as necessary but not enterprise central, it has not received the attention and support that it needs to contribute as fully as it should to mission and profitability. That needs to change. We should start with the self-evident truism that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Ask yourself, what are the metrics that you monitor to ensure that your life enrichment expenditure is paying off in increased revenues? After all, that’s the bottom line for any business.

Most community-level staff understand the importance of enriching lives. That truth, however, can be easily overlooked in the introspection of the C-Suite. As one anonymous commentator noted ruefully and ironically recently, when speaking of the central office governing culture, “Their view is: ‘We’re managing to our own satisfaction,’ and they want to be sure that all of us know that.” In an age of political “spin”, brand messaging can block top-level clarity of what needs to be done.

It takes courage to speak up when your voice is not invited, and most life enrichment directors and even many executive directors avoid the defensive reaction that can come from speaking truth to power. Still, if management thinks finances are what matters, then the organization has lost its purpose, which is to make life better for those who move in.

Embrace Your Residents

Residents are the reason the business exists. Moreover, they are your best sales resources for filling those vacant units. Residents should never be seen as a burden. That’s degrading. During a recent online conference, one panelist spoke of the burden life enrichment staff faced in finding suitable content for residents during the pandemic. Many residents may be able to suggest content that other residents would like. That could reverse the process. By eliminating the lines that divide staff from residents, we can create true life-enriching communities.

When activities and all decisions are made with residents instead of for residents, everyone benefits. Residents are empowered and the staff knows that their efforts matter. That will require a change from the corporate model in which employees, including life enrichment employees, are evaluated for their activity and measurable accomplishments instead of for their results.

We All Want Meaning In Our Lives

Above all else, residents want to matter. They want to have purpose. They want to be better off for having come into residence than they would have been otherwise. They want to be proud of where they live. These wishes, these needs, are no different for residents than they are for staff and even for senior executives and owners. These are basic human desires. Communities that deliver those benefits thrive. It’s about the experience. Deliver the experience and the money (occupancy) will not be a challenge.

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