By Jack Cumming

People don’t like to feel helpless. Our will to survive is powerful, and that which we don’t understand can seem threatening. The consequence is that when the unexpected happens we tend to leap to conclusions and then, quickly, elevate those quick conclusions to certainties. Not knowing can be tantamount to helplessness.

Questionable Conclusions

Consider an example. I spent a restless night recently with stomach cramps and all that goes along with that. As a result, I was still logy when I woke up. I shared my woe with my wife and suggested that it might have been the 10-day-old salad I had eaten for dinner. She didn’t think so, since it had been refrigerated and had no mayonnaise, and old lettuce is just old lettuce unless it’s contaminated.

Then, I turned to other possibilities. Perhaps, it was some eye-drop medicine that drained down my throat. With that I paused and remembered sage advice from my dad, who had been a philosophy major in college. “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” he would intone as a false premise for reasoning. Just because something happens after something else doesn’t mean that it was because of that.

Of course, the principles of clear thinking have ancient roots, though in our time Tversky and Kahneman gave them new form consistent with today’s social science context. Both the ancients and the moderns show us that we are often blissfully unaware of the human biases that lead us to reach false conclusions and to elevate them to beliefs.

Perceptions in Senior Living

This myopia of the mind may be particularly common in senior living since many of the professions that ameliorate aging are textbook taught. Textbooks claim to be authoritative. That implicit authority is reinforced by college examinations that require students to have mastered those textbook tenets. But the advance of knowledge and understanding is a never-ending flow. Textbooks, too, should be read with skepticism.

We often hear corporate titans praise “outside-the-box” thinkers. The Germans speak of “Querdenker,” roughly, “contrary thinkers,” a term I prefer. Querdenker is pronounced “kver-denk-er.” These are people who come up with creative, imaginative solutions to human challenges beyond what conventional thinkers consider axiomatic.

For instance, how could a person in a CCRC who goes to dining and activities be lonely to the point of clinical depression?

Insight: Residents can be lonely in the midst of conviviality and many often are.

Querdenker: What can we do about that? Example response: Let’s rethink life enrichment and dining to address the needs of lonely residents. Perhaps replace an activities staff position with contracted outside specialists.

Reaction: That doesn’t fit our budget process.

Such outside-the-box thinking is often received by managers as unwelcome criticism or disloyalty. The Querdenker may even be considered disruptive. Copernicus, Galileo, Freud, Darwin, and many more were viewed with disfavor in their time. In our time, we’ve seen the life of Alexie Navalny brought to a premature end because he spoke truth to power. In an earlier time, that was fate of Jan Hus, and Bohemia has never recovered from that injustice.

Dissension in Senior Living

Such examples abound in senior living, especially when the Querdenker is a resident. It’s not by policy or corporate intent, but individual senior living leaders are themselves people, and they like praise and authority as much as anyone does. The more ambitious the leader, the more likely he or she is to believe in self-affirmation. That’s simple human nature.

Now, imagine that a novelty arrives on the scene. It might be artificial intelligence. The Querdenkers are excited and want to deploy it immediately. “Hold on,” says the caution-minded CEO, “let’s wait a bit to see what others do. We don’t want to upset the apple cart of experience that we’ve amassed over the years.” The chief technology officer listens to the conversation and thinks, “Well, in five years I’ll be retired. Let’s just hold off for now.”

You Snooze, You Lose

That’s how companies and entire industries come to lag and fall behind. For senior living, consumer-empowering advances are making staying put increasingly attractive and practical. If senior living lacks what aging consumers can have in their homes, more and more people will conclude that staying put is a better choice for old age than is moving into a care home.

At this point, it’s no longer a matter of outside-the-box thinking. It’s simple common sense to act decisively to find the right talent to leapfrog senior living’s technological lag. It’s a survival move to place your enterprise and your communities into the forefront of progress.

The world has moved from the industrial age to the digital age, and it is moving from the age of workaday punch-clock shifts toward the yeoman flexibility of the gig economy. Those enterprises that don’t embrace with caution and deliberation the consumer-empowering revolution of augmented intelligence and everything digital will be superseded. Waiting is often the riskiest choice of all.

Don’t wait for vendors. The times are too urgent and too fast-paced for that. It’s time for senior living to define its own destiny and to find the resources and talented people that can make that potential a reality.