By Pam McDonald

In this Foresight Radio episode, Podcast Producer Pam McDonald encourages college senior Emma Meads to describe her journey to senior living. Emma says, “I found a part-time job during college in a senior living community and fell in love with it.” The following are some takeaway quotes from Emma (lightly edited): what she likes and what she’d like to change. You can listen to the entire episode here.

My start in senior living began when I found a part-time job while I was going to community college. I was a server at a new senior residence, and I fell in love with it. I think it was just the people who I got to work with, just their compassion and patience. You work with others who are in the industry for the same reason — we just have a passion and a love for it.

It’s funny. I just reached out to Steve one day. I was trying to navigate LinkedIn to see networking opportunities and Steve was very active on LinkedIn, so, I just sent him a message and said, ‘Hey, I’m a young professional looking to pursue a career in the industry. I would love to intern for you.’ And now here we are.

Life Enrichment: Joy, Connection, Love

There are lots of layers to Life Enrichment/Activities programs. I always go back to thinking about when I am 80, 90, a hundred years old, what do I want my life to look like? I love traveling. I love being outdoors. I love staying active and when I become that age, I want to still somehow be able to experience those things. So, when I think of Life Enrichment, I think of the things that still bring me joy, make me feel connected, and make me feel loved. I want to create those experiences for seniors.

I’m one of five activity coordinators and we bounce around between the assisted living side, the health care skilled nursing side, and memory support. I have my wonderful director, Karen, who oversees our department. There are five of us. We collaborate. We give each other tips and different ideas of programs that we’ve done that have worked, some that maybe haven’t, and different things that might improve the experience for the residents.

Resident Activities During A Pandemic

I worked at a CCRC with 75 to 80 independent living residents. I was fortunate to be part of a Life Enrichment program that puts a lot of funds and resources into expanding the program. Right now, a lot of what we’re doing is actually just scheduling and monitoring resident visits with families.

Monitoring family visits is a humbling experience because I recognize that residents need that connection with their families. They need to be with their family and talk to their families. I can’t provide that for them, but I can provide them the opportunity.

Doing the Best We Can with What We Have

It’s great when we get to work in memory support. That still feels a little bit normal, if I’m allowed to use the word normal. We can gather in groups in memory support. I might be working with 20 to 25 residents that day. I have to go to each room and allocate maybe 12 minutes a day to fit in a quick exercise or a quick game or just a quick discussion.

That’s really hard because if I put myself in their shoes, I am sitting in my room just trying to find stuff to do, watching a lot of TV. The 10 to 12 minutes I get with an activity coordinator are great, but then you have the rest of your day to fill up the time. So, we’re just doing the best we can with what we have.

Small Group Activities Are Back

Within the past week or two, we have been able to lead group activities — small group activities of six to eight residents. A lot of residents love the exercise classes, so we’re doing quite a few of those. My facility, or sorry, my community is fortunate to use iN2L. It’s really fun experimenting with that.

They have a flight simulator and we have a few residents who were pilots. And so, it’s really fun to just see them. I basically give them the device and I’m like, ‘Okay, you show me how I’m supposed to do this because you actually know what you’re doing.’ So thankfully within the past few weeks, we’ve been able to have small group activities.

Finding Things That Give Residents Fulfillment

I would have to say the purpose of activities in senior living is like . . . what would you want for your future when you’re 80, 90, a hundred years old? What do you want your life to still look like? What are things that bring you joy? Do you like expanding your intellectual abilities? Do you like learning new things, maybe reminiscing on family events or traveling?

That’s really the purpose of activities and life enrichment in senior living — finding out how people want to live the rest of their lives, taking that, and doing the best you can. Recognizing that maybe their purpose right now is just to reminisce about when they were a hockey player in college. We play their old tapes and you can just see them smile. Their wheels are turning as they relive those experiences. It’s finding purpose, but also recognizing the things that can give each resident fulfillment in life.

Technology Is Now A Basic Necessity

Technology is just so important these days and it wasn’t something that I would have ever realized until this global pandemic happened. Just the ability to have iPads and schedule a Zoom call with their family. We navigate that so these families still stay connected.

So just having the foundation of stable Wi-Fi and iPads we can distribute to the residents, I think is vital. Stable Wi-Fi and technological resources such as video chats to stay in touch with friends and family members on the outside world. If I could give you my ideal situation, every resident would have one activities person dedicated to them.

My major is psychology, which is really beneficial. I would love to work for different tech and innovation companies that are providing a service for life enrichment on the community level. I was doing a little bit of research today looking at a company that uses artificial intelligence therapy. We have much more research and more resources available. How can we shift it to align with what people need today to help enhance their well-being?

Finding Compassion

When I was at community college and I was just searching for a part-time job, I got a job as a server at a senior living community. It was just to have a job. But, gosh, I remember there was a turning point with a resident. I was probably about six months into working there and I was taking a resident’s lunch order. I remember I was so frustrated because I was just so caught up in the grind. It was like, ‘Oh no, I have to take this person’s order and food is ready for this other resident. These people are waiting on their drinks and this resident is having such a hard time getting out her words, telling me what she wants to eat.

I remember distinctly thinking, ‘Wow, Emma, just have compassion. Recognize that this resident right here in her life is doing the best she can. You need to be someone who can provide that space for her to still live out the best life that she can without getting caught up in the rest of what’s going on.’ Once I was able to harness that compassion and that patience, I was like, this is very profound. I want to work in a space where I can continue seeing that person for that person as they are when I get to interact with them. Ever since I’ve been ‘I’m going to hit the ground running and find my space in senior living.’

Life Knowledge Gained

Having my experience with senior living, really makes me focus on the entire narrative of my life. Like when I reach that age, what are things that I want to do and have accomplished? Honestly, I think I’ve gained so much life knowledge that I want to pursue working in senior living.

The hardest is when residents start to decline. When they go on hospice and you have to tell family members, ‘You’ll only have this much time to go visit. Only one person can go in and you have to have all this PPE gear on.’ I just think I wish I could do more. I wish I could provide more. But that’s just one of those times you just can’t, and it breaks my heart.

Next Steps

I’ve never had a management position and I would love to. I think a next step for me is to have some sort of management, oversight, or leadership position in life enrichment. I would love to see more collaboration between the activities department and the CNAs in resident services. We’re all on the same team. We’re all here to help these residents. So how can we collectively come together and use all of our skills to make this the best experience for the residents?

I would just love to see a broader conversation. It’s just small little communication factors that make it like ‘me and the CNAs are just two ships in the night.’ I would like to communicate in a way to really holistically look at the resident and be able to say this is how they’re doing today, and we think this is what they need.

Pulling Together Lessons from the Pandemic

The internship here at Senior Living Foresight with you and the rest of the team has been just so eye-opening and I’ve been so fortunate. It’s like, how did the stars align so perfectly for me to just have this spurt of confidence to reach out to Steve? I’m being an activities coordinator and then the first project I get to work on with Lola is helping develop, advertise, and promote Evolve 2021 [Foresight’s virtual life enrichment summit]. I am just so excited for this to come to fruition.

We’ve been putting so much hard work into it, and I think it will have something for all of the life enrichment directors, the COOs, and the executive directors. It’ll be a great space for all of us to come together, take a deep breath, and realize, ‘Wow, we got through 2020. We did it!’ Let’s now all put our heads together and figure out how we can change life enrichment given all the things that we’ve learned.

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