By Mary Ann Donaghy

Five years ago, after my mother had a major stroke, my siblings and I were put in the position many in our generation dread and face — selecting a new home that will keep our parents safe, happy. and cared for. After multiple tours, conversations, and financial considerations, we selected her community for a number of reasons: physical environment, location (proximity to my sister and a hospital), price, activities, food, and the rapport and trust we built with the Executive Director and Sales Director.

Flash Forward

This Friday, my mom turns 90. This is a huge milestone that warrants a celebration with friends and family. Sadly, she had a fall yesterday morning which landed her in the ER. She was then admitted to a nearby skilled nursing facility to heal and regain her strength. We had a small party planned during the daily Happy Hour for her birthday so that she could be feted by the people who love and care about her.

As we revise our plans to reflect her present situation, I realize something that I couldn’t have imagined five years ago when she moved in — that the most disappointing thing, beyond her health scare, is that many of the people who love and care about her most won’t be able to join. Those people are the staff where she lives.

People who have become like family. It saddens me that I won’t get to see their faces light up when they see her. I’ll miss the smile on her face when she banters with them. I’ll miss seeing them hug her. She may rarely remember their names, but I know she remembers how they make her feel.

Yes, three of her five children and four of her grandchildren will be by her bedside at the temporary home. But the people who laugh and chat with her every day and who know her more than many of her own blood relatives won’t be there to give her the celebration she deserves.

High Confidence

As I look back at the past five years, we’ve become weary of the excessive wallpaper, disappointed by the lackluster food, and perplexed by the Dutch boy haircuts she gets at the in-house beauty parlor. But the one constant has been the confidence we have in the staff that they actually CARE about our mother.

They genuinely love her and the other residents like family. They take a few extra minutes to visit when they bring her medications to her room. They have a few laughs and share stories. And, they go the extra mile to make her comfortable. And, based on what they say and do, they truly love their jobs because they love the residents.


It occurred to me that I don’t recall seeing any training coming out of the industry on CARING and EMPATHY . . . hiring for it or training on how you increase it. We talk about activities, safety, telehealth, food, driving leads, tours, amenities, and design. But not CARING.

Never about Caring (what is this?)

You Hire for What?

Southwest hires for personality traits like humor and friendliness. Nordstrom is known for hiring and training to ensure their customers receive a high-touch service that keeps them loyal.

Many big companies require personality and intelligence tests to screen applicants for the traits they are looking for. When I think of the single most important aspect of selecting a senior living community for mom or dad, the qualities of caring and empathy are absolutely critical. It’s hard to quantify it, with the exception of retention rate perhaps. But you know it when you see it, just like a sense of humor.

The Role of Safety

Yes, safety is important, but that is going to be higher with staff who care. Yes, price is important, but I’d pay a little bit more to know the staff really cared about my parents and walked the talk. A pleasant physical environment is nice but becomes less important over time.

The Right Training

So who is training operators on how to screen for and train highly caring, kind, and empathetic staff?  

As the industry faces shortages of staff in the coming years, it’s going to be more important than ever to make working in senior living appealing to more people. Millennials are known for wanting to do meaningful work. There are about 75 million of them.

Baby Boomers plan to continue working past the traditional retirement age, either because they want to remain relevant or because of financial need. There are 77 million of them. Perhaps by tapping into the personality traits of those who truly care about others and want to make it their life’s work, the industry can create a more appealing “employer brand” that will, in turn, translate into a more appealing consumer category that can better compete with the other options families and seniors have available to them.

I think most of us would like to make it to 90 like my mom. But we want to do it with dignity and authentic connections. This is something we can, and should, all aspire to make possible within our communities.